Fitness & Nutrition

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In their excellent newsletter HEALTHbeat, Harvard Medical School recently reported that, “when it comes to shedding pounds, the key is cutting calories — and it doesn’t really matter whether those calories come mainly from steak, bread, or vegetables.”

Okay, but if you commit to doing regular, calorie-burning exercise can’t you enjoy more fattening food more of the time?

Research suggests that the exercise approach will work – at least for women – if they start out at a normal weight. But for those who are overweight to begin with, exercise won’t be enough. In other words, exercise can keep you thin but it’s not going to make you thin. For that, you’re going to have cut calories and increase exercise.

If you don’t believe it, here’s the research evidence…

The study’s focus… Many studies have shown that physical activity can promote weight loss among people who are overweight or obese, but far fewer have investigated whether it can prevent unhealthy weight gain in the first place. That IS the focus of a study by Harvard Medical School researchers.

The researchers analyzed data provided by 34,079 healthy women, average age 54, who were participating in the long-term Women’s Health Study. Between 1992 and 2007, the women reported their body weight and physical activities every three years. They also provided information on matters that could affect the link between physical activity and weight change, such as smoking, postmenopausal hormone use, alcohol intake, and diet.

Participants were divided into three groups based on their level of physical activity, with energy expended in each group expressed in metabolic equivalent (MET) hours per week. A MET is a unit used to estimate the energy expended during physical activity, relative to the energy expended while sitting quietly.

The results… Not surprisingly, moderate-intensity activity, such as brisk walking, consumes more METs than lower-intensity activities such as yoga or stretching. In the study, women at the lowest activity level got less than 7.5 MET hours per week, the minimum recommended in federal guidelines (it’s the amount expended in walking briskly for 30 minutes, five days a week). The middle group got 7.5 to less than 21 MET hours per week; and the most active women got 21 MET hours or more per week, which requires at least 60 minutes per day of moderately intense physical activity — or 30 minutes per day of vigorous activity.

Over the course of the study, the women gained 5.7 pounds, on average. Those who exercised less tended to gain more: over any three-year period, women in the low and middle activity levels were more likely to gain 5 or more pounds than the most active women. When the researchers looked only at the 4,540 women who were normal weight (a body mass index of less than 25) at the study’s outset and who had managed to hold their weight in the normal range, they found that these weight-maintainers averaged 60 minutes of moderately intense activity per day.

What it means… Among normal-weight women, the likelihood of putting on weight decreased as physical activity level increased. Among women who were overweight or obese, there was no relationship between physical activity and weight gain.

Thus, for women who aren’t overweight or obese, exercise can keep off excess pounds, but it must add up to about seven hours per week of moderately intense activity such as brisk walking or casual bicycling — or 3.5 hours per week of vigorous activity such as jogging or aerobic dancing.

For women who are already overweight or obese, increased physical activity alone is not enough to prevent further weight gain. These women also need to reduce their calorie intake. But they should still get at least 30 minutes of moderately intense physical activity most days for the sake of the many health benefits, which include a reduced risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease and stroke.

Free coiled tape measure healthy living stock ...

Christmas cookies and cherry pie. Mashed potatoes, candied yams and homemade turkey stuffing! Surrounded by so much delicious holiday food, it’s terrifying to even think about getting on the  scale come January 2nd.

Or maybe not…

Contrary to popular belief, most Americans gain only one pound over the holidays. Sadly, though, research from the National Institutes of Health indicates that most of us never lose that pound. And so it goes, the slow but steady s-p-r-e-a-d of our waistline.

This holiday, take hope from some new and impressive scientific research. The respected journal Sciencerecently reported on an unusual study in which researchers asked volunteers to spend 90 seconds methodically imagining what it would be like to taste, chew and swallow 30 M&Ms, one after another. Then, when presented with a bowl of real M&Ms, the volunteers ate only about half as many candies as participants who’d been asked to imagine eating only three M&Ms (or none at all).

All this defies conventional scientific thought, which has long assumed that only real sensory input can produce the feeling of fullness (satiation). This study suggests that thought alone may trigger satiation—at least where eating is concerned. The results are likely to generate new investigations into overeating and ways to curb it.

PS… Subsequent testing found that methodical thinking about M&M eating did not suppress cheddar cheese consumption; but in-depth thoughts about eating cheese did. No kidding! So put on your thinking cap.

 

Roasted Beet Hummus | Perfect Summer Snack

Perfect Summer Snack

Spring is bleeding into summer shortly. With more hours of daylight and warmer temperatures, summer always seems to lend itself to relaxed outdoor parties, dinner soirees and the like. And that means I get to whip out all my favorite party foods. To start the season off, this is my all-time *favorite* appetizer for a party of one or twenty…

Quick, simple AND guilt-free: beet hummus is a fun twist on the traditional (if, dare I say, over-featured) hummus dip party option. Standalone hummus is healthy enough, with the tahini full of calcium and chickpeas a great source of protein. Not to mention, you can always pair the dip with carrots or cucumber instead of the more carb-heavy pita bread option. Enjoy!

INGREDIENTS

  • 2-4 medium sized beets (depending on how strong you want the beet flavor), scrubbed clean, cooked, peeled, and cubed*
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup tahini sesame seed paste
  • juice and zest of one lemon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus extra if desired
  • 1 cup cooked chickpeas
  • 1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for thinning the hummus

*To cook the beets: put them in a covered dish with about 1/4-inch of water in a 375°F oven, and cook until easily penetrated with a knife or fork. Alternatively, cover with water in a saucepan and simmer until tender, about 1/2 hour. Peel once they have cooled.

METHOD

Place all ingredients, chickpeas and olive oil last to be added, in a food processor (or blender) and pulse until smooth. Taste and adjust seasonings and ingredients as desired.

Makes 2 cups.

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Pregnant Woman Running on the Beach with Child

Running for the Health of It

Intuition and research tell us that the lifestyle of a pregnant woman can affect her baby. From drinking alcohol to smoking, there are certain behaviors doctors discourage. At the same time, some lifestyles can be beneficial for baby…

And exercise just got one major point in its favor.

This past week, researchers from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences presented interesting work at the Experimental Biology 2011 meeting in Washington. With a group of 61 healthy women, 20 to 35 years old, the researchers piloted a study on the relationship between exercise, pregnancy and fetal heart health.

Now, in the past, researchers found a correlation between a mother’s aerobic workout and an increased heart rate of her unborn child. Still, such correlation was generally thought to be transient. This new research went a step further, as the New York Times reports, to find that babies born to exercising mothers continued to have lower heart rates and greater heart-rate variability four weeks after delivery than the babies born to women who did not work out.

Exciting to think about the next step of studying whether or not this head start for babies continues to help children as they mature through toddlerhood…!

Person Drinking Coffee with Morning Paper

Coffee is Healthy to Drink

I don’t have many health vices. Coffee has always been at the top of the list and, so, I always tell myself it is healthy to treat yourself to some things. I mean, my morning coffee experience–complete with checking email in bed and skimming a trashy gossip magazine before getting ready–makes my day. And I relish the ritual, despite some guilt over the disputed healthiness of regular coffee drinking…

Well…no longer do I feel guilty! Now, research published in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association found that women (exclusively) who sip more than one cup of coffee a day had a 22% to 25% lowered risk of stroke. Even more profound, the researchers found that women who drank no coffee actually had a slightly increased risk for stroke.

While this study lacked control for medication use in its subjects, it’s important to take the findings with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, I admit that my morning ritual looks even better now, guilt-free and all. Cheers to that!


Bowl of Tasty Pasta with Swiss Chard

Spring Pasta!

Confession: I love pasta. I could eat pasta twice a day, every day. I could prepare a decadent bolognese or creamy alfredo sauce. But the truth is–these are neither very healthy choices for an already high-carb/low-protein meal. So, with spring (and summer!) around the corner, I set out to find a healthier, guilt-free option.

I started with my favorite pasta, orecchiette — which means “ear” in Italian and is shaped as such. I found this recipe from the New York Times inspiring me to choose Swiss chard as the base ingredient. It is a wonderful, if overlooked, vegetable with loads of calcium (so that down the line, you’re ready to take in some Vitamin D from the sun!) as well as Vitamin A and beta-carotene.

Otherwise, I improvised by throwing in mushrooms and sausage for protein, then choosing an olive oil “sauce” to save calories. If you add goat cheese to an olive oil mix, it helps add some texture and taste without costing you in the nutritional department.

Ingredients:

  • 1 bunch Swiss chard
  • 3/4 lb orecchiette pasta
  • 1 or 1 1/2 lbs Italian sausage, diced
  • 1/2 cup goat cheese, sprinkled in pieces
  • 1/2 lb crimini mushrooms cut; as the weather becomes warmer, opt for cherry tomatoes, cut in half with the seeds
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
  • salt/pepper to taste; add red pepper flakes if you desire (I love spicy food so I opt for a lot)

1. Boil a large pot of water. After stemming and washing the chard, steam it in the boiling water.

2. In a skillet, saute the diced sausage pieces and mushrooms in olive oil and garlic clove. Add in the chard and season to taste with salt and pepper.

3. Separately, boil another pot of water to cook the pasta in. When it’s cooked and drained, mix pasta with steamed chard, sausages, mushrooms. Finally, add the crumbled goat cheese and red pepper flakes.

Serves four! Enjoy!

NYC Restaurant Score Card

NYC Restaurant Score Card

Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Perhaps not so much when it comes to where you eat out…

I just heard about a useful new website — DontEat.at — that synchs your Foursquare check-in location (if you’re not tech-y, see below where I explain what this means) with the NYC Department of Health’s sanitation score for the restaurant you’re about to eat at. If the restaurant you’ve checked into received a “C” grade or worse, DontEat.at will text you with a warning.

As a complete germaphobe, I’m thrilled at the prospect of losing my ignorance here. As someone who avoids certain social media tech-y sites, I think I’m just going to bite the bullet and sign up for Foursquare, a cell phone program that allows you to “check in” to restaurants, bars and other venues so that friends will know what you’re up to.

DontEat.at is still fresh up and running, thus only available for New York City. But reports claim that there are plans to expand the service to other cities…so stay tuned!

People Sunning Themselves on Blankets in Open Field

direct Vitamin D!

Headlines can be misleading — and recent news about how much Vitamin D we all need is a perfect case in point.

Here’s one headline from the Wall Street Journal: “Triple That Vitamin D Intake, Panel Prescribes.” And another from the New York Times: “Extra Calcium and Vitamin D Aren’t Necessary, Report Says.” While these are just a couple of headlines that may confuse readers, which would you trust?

First, one easy takeaway is that we should be reading our news carefully so that we don’t carry incorrect information from headlines alone. Less easy to sort through is who actually needs more Vitamin D. Now, conventional wisdom has been telling us that low levels of Vitamin D can be linked to depression, various kinds of cancer, diabetes and stroke. And, over the past nine years, supplement sales have risen from $40 billion to $425 billion. Yet — despite the difference in headlines — recent news reports are actually claiming that, across the board, North Americans are getting enough of the vitamin as is from their blood (through the natural process of absorbing direct Vitamin D from sunlight).

For some of us however, it’s crucial that we get more than others. In particular: 1) people over 50 should be increasing their daily intake to support bone strength; 2) people with dark skin contain more melanin, which reduces the skin’s ability to produce the vitamin from sunlight; and 3) people who are obese need extra Vitamin D to make up for the relatively low levels in their blood.

Find out if you’re someone who needs more Vitamin D from the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements.

Colorful Bottles of Kombucha

Kombucha flavors

Not the first, but certainly most recent: the New York Times’ T-magazine posted a new lifestyle article on the growing Kombucha trend.

What is Kombucha? Well, it is a strange fermented, effervescent tea concoction made through a process of 1) adding bacteria and sugar to black or green tea and 2) letting the mix ferment for several weeks.

Once before, in the mid 1990′s, Kombucha gathered a following heavy with do-it-yourself types who made the tea themselves. (Not the safest thing, since there is always a risk of potential contamination if not done under sterile conditions.)

This new craze, however, is unparalleled. Just last year, market researchers reported that sales of Kombucha and other “functional” juice drinks — intended to not just taste good but also provide drinkers with an impressive range of health benefits — totaled $295 million. Primarily due to the probiotic live culture that grows when the tea is fermented, benefits ascribed to Kombucha include: increased function of the immune system, better digestion and diet control, more energy, and healthier-looking skin.

Does it work? In full disclosure, I love Kombucha and would encourage curious individuals to test it out. For a good six months, I drank the tea every day…and didn’t get a cold or the flu once during that period. And while I didn’t suddenly feel any fantastic anti-aging effects of this elixir of life, I did think my skin looked more vibrant; and I absolutely felt that I could eat more and look thinner. Although I came to like the taste, like many Kombucha drinkers, I didn’t start out liking the drink for its taste. Through and through, I drank it for the effects I felt.

If you’re thinking about trying it, I would recommend trying it once to test how you feel. Due to the various unknowns, it’s good to be cautious: in short, there has yet to be any major human trial of Kombucha reported in any major medical journal. More, the newest story, reported this past June) highlighted that the FDA pulled Kombucha from stores due to its belief that the drink may contain higher levels of alcohol than reported.

If you find that you like it and are itching for more, try different flavors and brands: the most popular being GT’s Synergy drinks, which combine Kombucha with fruit flavors. My favorites were Raspberry Rush, Cosmic Cranberry, and the Original unflavored version. Word to the wise: be careful not to shake the bottle since it’s effervescent! I shook my first one to get the mixture going and it exploded all over my kitchen. Otherwise, enjoy!