Avocado-The Better Spread

Avocados are one of my favorite foods. I can eat them morning, noon, and night, savory or sweet, straight with a spoon, and as far as I’m concerned, they go well with anything. The avocados in Sri Lanka have been amazing And sometimes they are called butter fruit. Sadly, butter fruit are no where to be found these days, but I was lucky enough to find two today. One seemed ripe and ready to go but it’s not and the other may take a few days. Hopefully it will be a good one because I haven’t had any yet this year!

Avocados are high in fat which is one of the reasons they have such a creamy texture and not only are they delicious, but they are nutritious! According to the California Avocados website, avocados contain nearly 20 essential nutrients, they are considered to be a healthy fat, and they add flavor and texture to any meal or snack. Avocados are rich in Vitamin E, have a variety of B vitamins, folic acid, potassium, and they are packed with fiber. Because they are high in monounsaturated fats, they help the body absorb fat soluble compounds such as beta-carotene and lutein, making some the other foods we eat even more nutritious.
While I’ve already mentioned avocados can go well with anything, try one, mashed, as a spread in your next sandwich. Many people use mayonnaise, both as a sandwich spread and a dressing base, but a good, ripe avocado can take its place and offer far more nutrition. And you know what’s ironic about this post? I’ve been using a bit of mayonnaise here and there this past week as a source of fat seeing as avocados are out. But anyway, let’s have a look at how they measure up. I ask you, when it comes to avocados versus mayonnaise, who will win?
Avocado (100 g-1 whole small fruit) vs Mayo (2 tbsp)
Calories: 160 calories /188 calories
Protein: 2 g /0 g
Fat: 15 g /21 g
Carbs: 9 g /0 g
Fiber: 6.7 g /0 g
Potassium: 485 mg /6 mg
Sodium: 7 g /175 mg
Monounsaturated fat: 10 g /5 g
As you can see, avocados have more nutrition to offer and all of it comes in a package of the small fruit itself, the mayonnaise is just two tablespoons! More food, more filling, more happiness. Use a ripe avocado in your next salad or sandwich. If you want more tang, like in the mild zing of mayonnaise, add a dash of salt and vinegar, try some lime juice and chili powder, or keep it simple with a spritz of soy sauce. There are many tricks to determine the ripeness of an avocado, but my favorite is the green spot test. The green spot is the small hole in the top of the fruit once the stem has been popped off. If it’s green inside, it’s usually ripe, but not always! Sometimes, you just have to test a few for firmness and go with your gut. If they are too hard, they will take a while to ripen, but if you can put your finger through the skin, it’s past it’s peak. Monitor your avocados at home because once they are ready, they spoil quickly!

If avocados are not already a part of your diet, incorporate them today. While to some, they may not be the most flavorful of foods, they certainly have a lot to offer. And, honestly, I think it’s safe to say most people love them. Make your favorite sandwich, some classic chicken salad, or toast some whole grain bread and add some creamy and dreamy avocado today! If you want more inspiration, look up some recipes on line or check out Pinterest. My feed is always full of delicious, innovative, and creative avocado recipes.

4 Key Nutrients for Active Females

More and more women are getting into health and fitness. That’s great, but so many have questions about nutrition, healthy meal plans, and what they need for their bodies. Because women need fewer calories than men, I always emphasize that what ever diet (or meal plan) is followed, it must be well formulated. While it is important for everyone to consume a healthy diet, there are considerations across different age groups, especially for active people and athletes. Today we are going to look at 4 key nutrients for active females and how they help the body. In addition to the three macronutrients: carbohydrate, protein, and fat, active females need to ensure they consume adequate amounts of iron, Vitamin D, calcium, and antioxidants. Let’s have a look at each one.

Iron is a part of our hemoglobin, a protein that allows the body to bring oxygen from the lungs into the tissues. It is also found in myoglobin, which is a protein that supplies oxygen to the muscles, especially important during physical activity. Iron aids in metabolism, growth, development, and it plays a role in the creation of hormones and connective tissue, and it is partially responsible for the normal functioning of our cells. Not only do many people not consume adequate amounts of iron in the diet, but female athletes may have even less of the mineral. Women do lose some iron during their menstrual cycle and some athletes will have greater losses in their sweat, urine, and feces. When iron levels are suboptimal, the functionality of muscles is limited and overall work capacity is thereby reduced.
Iron comes from both animal (heme) and vegetable (non-heme) sources. Meat and seafood, especially oysters, are rich sources. Nuts, beans, certain vegetables, and cereal and grain products that have been fortified are some non-heme sources. Furthermore, heme-iron is more easily absorbed and has better bioavailability than non-heme iron, but the addition of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) enhances absorption. A good habit for vegetarians is to add a Vitamin C containing source of food at mealtime like lime juice on some bean and vegetable tacos, for example. The recommend daily allowance (RDA) for iron varies throughout the lifecycle, but females aged 14-18 need mg/day and women 19-50 need 18 mg/day (more when pregnant and lactating). To give you an idea, 3 ounces of oysters contain 8 mg, 1 cup of canned white beans contains 8 mg, and one half cup of boiled spinach contains 3 mg. Vegetarians and long distance runners (due to “foot strike hemodialysis,” a breakdown of the red blood cells in the blood vessels after repeated force to the foot), may be at a higher risk for iron deficiency and should be screened regularly. According to the Position Statement from the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics, these athletes should aim for more than the RDA of 18 mg of iron per day.

Key Nutrients for Females
Iron is good for the body in more ways than one!

Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin that promotes calcium absorption and helps maintain appropriate levels of calcium and phosphorus, both of which aid in bone mineralization. It helps with bone growth and without it, bones can become brittle and thin. It also helps with cell growth, it plays a role in neuromuscular and immune function, and it can reduce inflammation. Vitamin D can enhance athletic performance and more and more studies show it may help injuries, be effective during periods of rehabilitation, improve neuromuscular function, increase the size of type two muscle fibers, and decrease the incidence of stress fractures.
The body produces Vitamin D through a complex process that involves UV rays from the sun. Females aged 14-70 require 600 IU (international units) per day. In addition to the sun, we get vitamin D from fatty fish like salmon (447 IU/3 ounces), tuna (154 IU/3 ounces, canned), vitamin D fortified milk (120 IU/cup), 1 large egg (41 IU, found in the yolk), and fortified cereals (amounts vary).
Athletes who have had stress fractures or other bone or joint injuries, muscle pain, or weakness, and those who have a low exposure to UVB rays (like those in northern latitudes or who cover up in the sun) may want to be assessed to determine if vitamin D levels are low.

Key Nutrients for Females
You also get Vitamin D from the sun.

Calcium, like Vitamin D, is important for bone health. The Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics states “It is responsible for growth, maintenance, and repair of bone tissue.” It also regulates muscle contraction, conducts nerves, and assists in normal blood clotting. If calcium levels are low, bone mineral density can lessen and lead to fractures.
Often, low calcium levels in female athletes is because of an overall low calorie diet and disordered eating. Bone formation is at it’s peak in teenage years, a time when many young women are active and concerned about body image, so this age group requires more calcium than the average adult. As we age, bone formation slows until eventually “breakdown exceeds formation,” as stated by the National Institute of Health in their fact sheet on calcium. Adequate amounts in the formative years is important- it maximizes long term bone health.
Females aged 14-18 need 1,300 mg of calcium per day and women 19-50 require 1,000 mg per day. Dairy products are great sources of biologically available calcium with 8 ounces of yogurt supplying 415 mg and 8 ounces of milk at 300 mg. Canned salmon with bones (they are soft and safe to eat) provides 180 mg for 3 ounces and one cup of raw kale provides 100 mg. Almonds are also a good source and if consuming milk alternatives, be sure to read labels and purchase one that is calcium fortified.

Key Nutrients for Females
Some calcium sources.

Antioxidants protect cell membranes from damage caused by oxidation as a result of exercise (but not the only cause). Researchers have hypothesized that regular training does place constant stress on cells, increasing some of the harmful compounds in the body. Natural levels of antioxidants, however, increase and serve as protectors to the cells. Well trained athletes may naturally create more antioxidants within the body. Athletes do not necessarily need a supplement, but should consume a wide variety of foods to ensure they consume antioxidant rich foods to include fruits like berries, brightly colored vegetables, and fiber filled avocados.

Key Nutrients for Females
Get plenty of fruits and veggies.

Athletes do not need vitamin and mineral supplements to improve performance as much of what is required by the body can be derived through the food we eat. They may be warranted to reverse a deficiency that already exists. If you are concerned, check with your doctor for an assessment, but otherwise, be sure to consume a nutrient dense and varied diet.

Carnitine Confusion

This is another one of my articles inspired yet again, by my travels through Thailand. I see products all over filled with one type of supplement or another and carnitine is common. You may have heard of this compound before. Do you take supplemental carnitine? What is it good for and do we need more than what is provided in a healthy diet?
Carnitine comes from an amino acid and is in almost all of the body’s cells. It was initially found in meat and you may have seen it written as L-Carnitine, propionyl-L-Carnitine, and acetyl-L-Carnitine. If you have ever seen it touted for its ability to burn calories or provide energy, that is true. It helps bring certain fats into the mitochondria (the powerhouses of the cell) so they can be burned, or in more scientific terms, oxidized to make energy. It also removes toxic compounds that are generated in the mitochondria by transporting them out. So, carnitine does help burn fat and prevent build up of toxic substances, but that doesn’t mean extra carnitine will lead to extra fat loss.
As far as recommended intakes are concerned, most people do not need supplemental carnitine because our bodies can make and store what we need. Most of it is concentrated in skeletal and cardiac muscles that can and do use fat from food as fuel. There are a few exceptions for needing supplemental carnitine, however they are very specific and related to genetic and medical issues. The liver and kidneys synthesize carnitine from the amino acids lysine and methionine and animal products are the best, naturally occurring sources of carnitine. It is found in meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products (primarily in whey), and then of course, there are products with added carnitine.

Carnitine Supplementation
Carnitine is naturally found in fish and meat.

So what’s the scoop, or the goop?! The Food And Nutrition Board (FNB) has not set recommendations on intake amounts as they concluded it is not an essential nutrient after reviewing various studies. A good place to look is at the metabolism of supplements in question and see what happens when we have too much. Our bodies are able to regulate and maintain proper blood concentrations of many substances and compounds in the body, that whole homeostasis thing, and so our kidneys do that for us with carnitine. Even those who may not consume much carnitine, like vegetarians and vegans, are able to maintain proper blood levels. Furthermore, and according to the National Institute of Health, most (54-86%) of the carnitine that we do eat is easily absorbed in the small intestine and enters into the bloodstream. Guess what happens when we eat too much? The kidneys will excrete it in our urine, it helps maintain that stable blood concentration. So while we may want more of a good thing, something that helps us burn fat, extra amounts do not really help if its weight loss we are looking for.
With that, however, there may be some instances where additional carnitine, more specifically, acetyl-L-carnitine, is warranted. This form of L-carnitine is better absorbed in the small intestine and gets into brain tissue better (it can cross the blood brain barrier more easily). Regarding athletics, there has been inconsistent evidence showing that carnitine enhances performance, helps the body use more oxygen, improves metabolism during exercise, nor has it been shown to increase intra muscular levels of it. When it comes to aging, and some other instances, added carnitine maybe beneficial. It may play a positive role in improving mental function and lessen deterioration in adults with some cognitive impairments and Alzheimer’s disease. Supplemental carnitine may help manage cardiovascular and peripheral artery disease, fatigue caused by chemotherapy for cancer treatment, type 2 diabetes; and in HIV and AIDS, it may slow progression and reduce neuropathy associated with the disease. But, these benefits are very specific and if you are affected by any of them, speak to your doctor for more case specific treatment regarding supplemental carnitine, Furthermore, many studies yield mixed results, so more research is always needed.
In short, we excrete carnitine beyond what the body needs, so supplements to improve athletic performance or to speed weight loss are largely ineffective. In the case of products with added carnitine, you can eat or drink them if you like, but like all things, do so in moderation. I’m not going to lie, sometimes I like the cool, fruit flavored jelly pouches in Thailand that have various supplements in them, but I only eat them occasionally and do so mostly because they are tasty and refreshing in the heat! Overall, eat a healthy diet with lean protein and skip the supplemental carnitine.

Sweet Potatoes 🍠

Five Reasons to Enjoy Sweet Potatoes This Season

It is officially fall, actually, it’s almost winter in some parts and I’m so behind posting blogs! But here I am, and it’s well into the time of year when people get excited for their favorite seasonal foods, Halloween, and the holidays. This year, be sure to include some delicious sweet potatoes alongside your pumpkin spiced latte on the table. They are a nutritional powerhouse and can be prepared in a variety of ways.
The history of sweet potatoes goes way back. Evidence shows they were one of many types of potatoes cultivated in Peru as early as 5,000 years ago. From there, it is said they have traveled around the world, becoming popular and in some areas, very important crops. They differ botanically from yams, their big cousin from Africa. Yams have a rough skin and can grow very large, sometimes weighting in at 150 pounds! The canned yams you see in the grocery store are actually sweet potatoes, and sweet potatoes are not actually potatoes! Sweet potatoes are a part of the morning glory family and the part we eat is the root of the plant. The more common white potato belongs to the nightshade family, which produces tubers, the underground stems that so many know and love.
Back to sweet potatoes. While it is interesting that they are one of the nearly 4,000 types of potatoes that come from Peru, what’s really important is their nutrient density. Wait- I should say first that they are delicious, then add that they are nutritious! Most people eat for flavor, and sweet potatoes have it. They can be served in a variety of ways, from sweet to savory, baked to fried, and every way in between.

Purple Sweet Potatoes
Purple Sweet Potatoes in Laos.

1. Sweet potatoes are a complex carbohydrate. This type of carbohydrate contains starch but it also contains fiber which slows digestion and keeps you feeling fuller, longer. In addition, fiber plays a role in digestive health, helps to keep you regular, and some studies show fiber may reduce cholesterol levels.
2. Need some Vitamin A? Have a sweet potato. Just one half of a medium sized sweet potato provides all your Vitamin A needs for the day. The colorful compounds in these orange vegetables are called carotenoids. Beta carotene is the most important and in the human body, we convert it into Vitamin A. This is a critical vitamin for vision and it aids in proper functioning of both the cornea and conjunctival membrane. The most common reason for night blindness the world over is Vitamin A deficiency, so ensure you get your orange vegetables to protect against eye damage, both now and as you age.
3. Potassium. Most people in the United States do not consume enough potassium, a nutrient that is necessary to help muscles contract and communicate with nerves and to regulate mineral balance in our cells. It can also help maintain a healthy blood pressure and may be protective against bone loss as we age. We need about 4,700 mg/day and one medium sweet potato helps contribute to that daily goal, providing nearly 500 mg.
4. Sweet potatoes, like most other vegetables, are naturally low in fat. While it is important to limit the amount of overall fat we consume in the diet, a small amount of monounsaturated fat helps us to absorb the beneficial compounds found in sweet potatoes. When preparing your delectable dish, use some flavor enhancing olive, canola, or peanut oil, or add some avocado, peanuts, or other nuts and seeds to your meal.
5. Sweet potatoes are delicious. Their natural sweetness pairs well with both sweet and savory foods. Try roasting some with a spritz of lime and a sprinkle of chili powder, or bake some puréed potatoes into a pie this holiday season. Be aware of some toppings, however, as different syrups, brown sugar, and marshmallows all add extra calories with little nutrition. Enjoy the flavor this amazing vegetable has to offer by roasting or broiling it in the oven. The caramelization process enhances the natural sweetness of the potato and you will feel good knowing you’re providing your body with some healthy nutrients.
Get cooking today! Whether you make them baked, mashed, in French fry form, roasted, or into pancakes, pies, or casseroles, don’t leave out this gem of a vegetable over the holiday season, or any time of year for that matter!


A Healthy Thanksgiving

A Few Ways to Healthify Your Holiday

Thanksgiving is a holiday definitely known as a day of indulgence, but it’s not good to stuff our stomach the way we stuff our turkey. Follow these simple steps to improve your health this Thanksgiving day incorporating foods you will already have on the table.
Most people spend part of their day snacking with friends and family members while waiting for the big meal. If you fall into that category, be sure to set out or bring a vegetable platter complete with freshly sliced finger foods that you can dip into some seasoned Greek yogurt or some spicy hummus. Fruit kebabs are a nice addition and provide color and variety to your spread. Before you fill your plate with turkey, potatoes, and all the fixings, fill up on a bowl of salad. Crisp romaine lettuce, crunchy cucumbers, carrots, bell peppers, and tomatoes are not only tasty, but provide water, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, all helpful in filling you up without a lot of calories. Allow a few minutes for your salad to settle. Our brain needs some time to know that we are not starving and you won’t be tempted to fill your plate with too much food once the turkey is carved.
Speaking of turkey, go for the light meat. It is a leaner option and a 4 ounce serving of breast meat provides 170 calories, 34 grams of protein, and less than 3 grams of fat. The same size serving of dark meat (including some skin) has over 200 calories, 30 grams of protein, and over 10 grams of fat, much of which is saturated. Turkey breast is a great source of protein and studies show that lean protein has staying power- it keeps us feeling full, affecting our appetite so we eat less. That is very important on a day when most Americans consume upwards of 5,000 calories. Enjoy your turkey as is, or if using gravy, use in moderation. This condiment can be high in fat and sodium, depending on preparation or brand. For an even better topping, use some fresh cranberry sauce. This seasonal berry packs a nutrient and tasty punch! They are high in antioxidants that fight free radicals, compounds known to cause damage to our cells. Other health benefits include reducing the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, different cancers, and they also aid in digestion. Check out the recipe below for a delicious way to enjoy this fresh berry- it’s much better than jelly from a can!
Hold the sugar on the sweet potatoes! This Thanksgiving day tuber is healthy on it’s own, but so many traditional holiday recipes include sugar or syrup, turning a great side dish into sugary mush. Besides the fact that they are naturally delicious and already slightly sweet, here are four more reasons to enjoy some lightly seasoned sweet potatoes this holiday season:
Sweet potatoes are a complex carbohydrate. The fiber in this type of carbohydrate slows digestion and keeps you feeling fuller, longer. Vitamin A: just one half of a medium sweet potato provides all your Vitamin A needs for the day. Not only is this good for the eyes, but considering most Americans do not get enough of it, now is a good time to get some, not only on Thanksgiving day, but every day! Potassium: another nutrient lacking in the American diet. It helps muscles contract and communicate with nerves – just what you will need to take that post feast walk! And all things considered, sweet potatoes, like most other vegetables, are naturally low in fat.
So, to recap. Fill up on veggies, lean and light turkey breast topped with bright red fresh cranberry sauce, and sugar free naturally sweet potatoes! There will be other foods around your holiday table, but practice moderation, take a walk, and most importantly, enjoy time spent with friends and family!

Fresh Cranberry Sauce

Serves: 8

1/2 cup of water
2 cups fresh cranberries
1/4 cup orange juice
1/2 cup stevia and sugar blend
Zest of one orange
1/4 tbsp French ginger, minced
1 sprig fresh thyme

Bring water, orange juice, and stevia mix to a boil.
Add cranberries, ginger, and thyme and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until mixture thickens.
When desired consistency has been achieved, remove thyme and add orange zest.
Stir well and enjoy.

Nutrition Education in Developing Nations

Sampon Boat, Bangladesh
Sometimes when you travel, you have a lot of time to think about things.

This is kind of a random “other” post blog, but these things are always on my mind and I felt like putting them down onto internet paper. I just got back from a week in Bangladesh and have even more things on my to do list now yet the more I travel, the more tired I’m becoming. Maybe a good break early next year will be good and I can start putting some ideas into motion!

If you follow me on FB, you may know I applied for a fellowship with Duke University through the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics. The Academy is the regulating body for registered dietitians in the US and the goal of the fellowship is to address chronic malnutrition in Central America through conducting a “mapping of the existing interventions and an assessment of the steps needed to address chronic malnutrition in Central America.” When this fellowship was announced, I was so excited. Having wanted to work in world nutrition for the past 10 years now, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity. I updated my resume and wrote a cover letter for the position. I did my best to convey my passion to work in this area, but I got no response between the application deadline and the start of the interview process. I emailed to follow up and I was told the interview period was extended. They received more applications than expected so I guess it was going to take longer to make a decision. I never heard back. I was a little crushed, I won’t lie, but the fact that the opportunity came up turned out to be a good thing. It reignited a passion that I’d let die down. I began looking for other opportunities, I followed some NGOs on Instagram, and I even applied for an international independent contractor position through the United Nations Operations website. The position is based in Yangon, Myanmar (woo hoo, one of my favorite countries), but it’s more related to nutrition policy and less field work. The application deadline was extended. It seems like an obscure position so I think they didn’t get enough applicants, but I also did not hear back from them, unfortunately. Anything to get my foot in the door with a big aid organization would be like getting a golden ticket!

Swedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar
The golden Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar

Back to my travels for a bit. When I began, I thought I would find some way to work or volunteer with an organization that has some focus on nutrition. Aside from my month long stay in Kathmandu, that has not happened. Since then, however, my friend Asta has been developing her NGO, World Friendship Nepal. They work with mothers and children to educate them on healthy, post partum practices. Uterine prolapse is a common occurrence in Nepal and the NGO is teaching women what they can do to protect themselves. Because the primary focus is on women and children, Asta wants to incorporate nutrition education as well because as we all know, child nutrition is so important! She will be using the documents we put together when I was in Nepal last year.

Nutrition Education in Nepal
Nutrition Education in Nepal

There are tons of aid organizations and NGOs out there, but it’s a matter of finding one that wants to align with a dietitian and place an emphasis on nutrition education. I’ve yet to find that perfect position or opportunity, so I swear I’m somehow going to create it for myself! Something must be done. Large aid organizations help in developing countries, they donate food, deliver supplements, and help with farming practices, but I know more can be done. I want to do research on how these organizations operate. What do they do, what do they donate, and why? What systems can be improved upon? How many people are out in the field? How many are in offices? I’ve read so many plans and policies to improve nutrition outcomes over time, but let’s stop wasting time writing up these documents. We need people out there, getting into these remote villages and connecting with people. Uniceff has a big vitamin a supplementation program, but why supplement? So many of the nations that are vitamin a deficient have foods rich in vitamin a. There are so many issues involved with supplementation programs, so why not teach people improved farming practices, introduce new, nutrient dense crops? I’m not saying these things are not being done, they are, but MORE can be done, right? The WFP does food drops and staple donations. But sometimes, these staples just fill, they don’t properly nourish. We need to start from the ground, literally, by planting better, and more nutrient dense crops. Yikes! I’m getting ahead of myself because in order to do that, you need to change culture and that’s not an easy feat. Rice here in Asia rules, yet it is so nutrient void. I wish people could really understand that and make a shift.

Plate of Rice
A plate of white rice, the centerpiece to any Bangladeshi meal.

I wish I knew more. I wish I could learn some languages in remote villages, I wish I could live and work alongside locals and see how they eat and live. I wish I could befriend them and teach them about nutrition for their own benefit. Basic nutrition practices can have such positive lifelong benefits.
Even though I love fitness and working with athletes and bodybuilders, the most dramatic changes take place at the basic level. Eating the right foods can easily prevent so many avoidable diseases.
I don’t know where the future will bring me. I’ve begun contemplating starting a PhD. Maybe I can create a long term project in some remote village, working in conjunction with a small, legit NGO. If anything, I’ve come up with some recipe ideas in my head for therapeutic supplements that are far more nutrient dense than existing products currently on the market. But, with superior quality comes higher costs. I can definitely see myself experimenting in my kitchen (next time I have my own, that is).

Purple Sweet Potatoes
Purple Sweet Potatoes in Laos.

I don’t know how all NGOs work, I don’t know if I can partner with one, but whatever the case, some day I will do/make/create something to somehow alleviate some of the malnutrition in this world. Vitamin A deficiency seems to me to be a key target and sweet potatoes are calling my name. I’m going to start a sweet potato revolution, I just have to figure out how to do it. So much more learning to do!

The Cycle of Rice

Rice is life here in Asia. It’s often the main staple and comprises nearly 70% of the calories consumed in some countries. In the west, we just see rice in a bag, but have you ever thought of how it grows or where it comes from? Oddly enough, I always think about it and today, on an unexpectedly long walk, I figured out how it was all done. Take a walk with me through the countryside outside of Sa Pa in northern Vietnam to see the cycle of rice!

Ta Van, near Sa Pa, northern Vietnam.

Even though rice is one of my least favorite foods, rice paddies are beautiful. I always say rice grass green is greener than any green you’ve ever seen! And here in Sa Pa, the rice terraces that curve along the mountainside are spectacular. They look like green carpets descending down from the misty mountains high above, their culms and blades swaying in the gentle breeze between the valley. But rice production isn’t about pretty pictures and scenic views, it’s a lot of hard work! In Vietnam, it is mostly manual labor and that means a lot of work for those involved. The country is the 2nd largest exporter of rice, just behind Thailand, and 7th in consumption. In 2017, forecasts say crops will yield over 44 million tons of paddy rice and there are over 1,600 varieties in the country.

So how does it grow? It needs a lot of water, so rice grows in a “flooded field,” and Vietnam has many areas suited for such a staple. Seeds must be planted, just like with any other crop and as it grows, roots will reach down into the earth and root below the water. Nutrients from the soil are delivered to the plant and eventually leaves emerge and grow. These young seedlings are harvested and separated and then transferred to the flooded fields. They are evenly spaced with enough room to grow to full size. These are the plants I often see growing throughout Asia, the bright green rice grass.

Can’t get enough of that green!

When the plant has matured, it will reach a height of about 3-4 feet. It produces a tiller, which is a reproductive stem. It keeps growing and will produce a flower head. At this point, the plant is in the reproductive stage. The flower head will produce up to 150 tiny flowers that will form seeds once pollinated. In the next 30 days, the rice seeds change color, some turning golden, the consistency of the grain itself changes (it hardens) and becomes ripe. The seeds can then be harvested for food and this process is what I witnessed today.

As we walked along the windy mountainous roads, we saw what ended up being the rice harvesting process. The bright green fields are all around, but some are turning golden. At one point, we saw some people further down the terraces, harvesting the rice from the flooded fields. They were working hard, bending, cutting, and carrying the loot up to the roadside.

Rice harvesting is hard work.

The golden crops were laying in neat piles along the dusty road, but we wondered how the flower, or the seed, is actually separated from the stem. Luckily, just around the bend, we saw a group of men and the mystery was solved. They had a portable machine that reminded me of a wood chipper. They put the stems in one end, the seeds came out one side, and the rest of the organic material shot out of the machine into a pile below. It actually more reminded me of a snow blower, but you won’t find snow in these parts!

Rice separation on the roadside.

Once the rice is separated, it is set to dry. This process takes time and  depends on the weather and conditions.

Rice drying after separation.

Once the rice is dry, it’s placed into a manually run machine that separates the husk from the grain. These husks are inedible coverings that protect the rice during growth. Often times, you see the husks being used for fuel (burning), but they also can be used as fertilizer or insulation material. I spoke to these two women for a bit and they said they will fill 8-10 bags of husked rice per day.


Separating the husk from the grain.

From a nutrition standpoint, this is where processing should end (aside from cleaning). Unfortunately, in Asia, rice goes off to the mill to be stripped of its nutrients to yield white rice. When I say “in Asia,” that’s very broad because Asia is huge, but everywhere I have been, this is the case. White rice rules, except in one little place, but more on that in a bit. The anatomy of a grain of rice is much more than the “white” part, or the endosperm. This is the carbohydrate and calorie provider of the food. The bran protects the seed, it serves as the outer shell, but it’s not the husk (that’s already been removed). The bran also contains fiber, B vitamins, and some minerals. The germ contains nutrients such as antioxidants, vitamin E, a bit of healthy fats, and B vitamins (just like the bran). And wow! If you want a seriously detailed breakdown, check out the FAO’s website.

Whole vs. Refined Grain

The thing is, when rice is milled, so many nutrients are removed. When looking at main staples of the diet, they are a huge source of calories and nutrients, but with milled rice, so much is lost. We (dietitians) often tell clients to incorporate more whole grains in the diet, but when these simple carbohydrates have been king for so long, it’s hard for people to accept the healthier version and make that shift. When malnourishment and nutrient deficiencies are rampant, it’s sad to know so much is wasted.

The rice terraces of Sa Pa are beautiful. It was so interesting to simply walk along the road and actually see all the stages of processing once the rice has been harvested. All in all, my fellow travel buddies and I ended up walking nearly 12 miles. We saw lots of green, lots of grass, lots of rice. And at the end of the day, what do you think was served with dinner? You guessed it, a bowl of shiny white rice, straight from the local fields. Did I have some? Well, it was “rice day,” so I had a bit (maybe 1/4 of a cup). Is it my favorite? No.

Rice is the centerpiece of many Vietnamese dishes. Dinner is served at My Tra Guest House.

The best rice I’ve had in Asia was in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Coincidentally, they don’t mill their rice as often there. It was hearty, healthy, and tasty. In Asia, I’m “riced out.” I’m not Asian, if I don’t eat rice at mealtime, I’m ok, but for locals, a meal without rice is not a meal at all. Hopefully one day, more people will incorporate whole grain rice into their lives. It’s a way to incorporate more nutrients into the diet and what do I always say? Eat a nutrient dense, varied diet!

Coffee, Caffeine, and Civets in Da Lat, Vietnam ??

I love learning about new food while I travel and I always hope something will inspire me to write a blog. If I can tie in travel with nutrition and fitness somehow, it’s a double bonus seeing as that’s one of my goals with this whole blog deal. I mean, many people have a food blog, a fitness blog, or a nutrition blog, but there are very few that fuse them all! I’m here in Vietnam and while I’m not going to write about something you may have never seen before, I’m going to give you some new information on something you already know and likely love: coffee!

A coffee machine for your coffee mug!

Are you a coffee lover? Do you enjoy it every morning or maybe even during the day? If so, you are not alone. Coffee is a commodity and many people consume copious amounts the world over. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), over 7 million tons of coffee was consumed in 2010 and numbers continue to increase. Latin America and the Caribbean is the world’s largest coffee producing region, with Brazil in the top spot for coffee exports. Vietnam is just behind them and well known for their robusta, arabica, and moka beans (not to be confused with the mocha drink, made with milk and chocolate ). StatisticBrain.com reported that 54% of Americans aged 18 and over drink an average 9 ounce cup of coffee everyday and there are over 100 million coffee drinkers in the United States but in Vietnam, it must be much more (I don’t have statistics). There are coffee shops everywhere, and by that I don’t mean every corner, but lined up one right next to another. I don’t know how they all stay in business.

There’s a coffee shop in that Artichoke Flower! Da Lat, Vietnam.

While you may often hear it’s not good to consume too much coffee, it does have some benefits. There have been various studies conducted that show coffee consumption reduces the risk for various diseases. Science cannot always say why these phenomena take place, or what specifically in the coffee reduces disease, but it is also not proven that coffee will prevent disease. Keep in mind that studies typically do not show a cause and effect and it is possible that when analyzing data, coffee drinkers have other healthy lifestyle habits that may also help ward off unwanted health issues. On that note, let us have a look at some of the perks of a daily cup of joe.
Coffee consumption may help reduce the risk of developing type two diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Coffee drinkers have a decreased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and more specifically, Alzheimer’s disease. There is also evidence that coffee can reduce rates of certain kinds of cancers.
Avoiding disease is a good reason to keep that daily cup or two, or even three cups of Joe. Yes, three. In fact, some studies show benefits when up to five cups of coffee are consumed daily! The caffeine in coffee, however, is not always a good thing. While it does deliver some energy and is a known ergogenic aid (many preworkout supplements contain caffeine), it can also keep us awake at night, especially if we drink too much or too late in the day.

Have coffee, workout.

Monitor your intake and sleep habits and ensure you are able to get a good night’s rest. If you feel jittery, you are likely consuming too much caffeine. Another issue with excess coffee consumption is not necessarily the coffee itself, but what is added to that cup. While a cup of brewed coffee does not provide any calories to the diet, milk, cream, sugar, and other additives add up calorie wise. That’s a big thing with Vietnamese coffee because the main thing in it is “milk.” I put milk in quotes because when you ask for it, you automatically get sweetened condensed milk, and a lot of it. If you want regular milk, you have to ask for fresh milk, but you’ll often get it in conjunction with the condensed milk. It’s hard to escape the sweetness. Sometimes I “forget” to ask, secretly, or actually not so secretly. I love sweetened condensed milk, but it’s too much and I’m limiting myself to one typical cup a day, either in the morning, or before I workout. It has seriously become my main source of carbohydrates these days (and it needs to stop). Overall, a little bit of “milk” or artificial sweetener is ok, but moderation is key.
There are many compounds that are attributed to the noted health benefits of coffee, some even yet to be discovered by science. In a summary about Coffee and Health, Harvard Health states that drinking coffee has various health outcomes. Because of the variety of compounds found in coffee, it may have positive effects in some components of our health, but negative effects in others. These benefits are found with both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee, so it isn’t the caffeine that’s responsible.

Sweet smelling coffee flowers.

If you enjoy your morning mug, there is no need to feel you should “quit” coffee. But remember, all things in moderation and certain populations, such as pregnant women and people with high blood pressure should limit their intake. Don’t forget about what you may put into your coffee- cream, sugar, and sweetened condensed milk all add excess calories to the diet that are often overlooked. And if you are one of the rare persons who does not like coffee, don’t worry, you don’t have to start drinking it if you don’t enjoy it!

Green coffee cherries. They are ripe when they are red.

You may be familiar with arabica, robusta, and moka coffee beans, but what about “weasel” or “civet coffee?” This coffee comes from partially digested beans consumed by civets. It’s the most expensive coffee in the world and according to my tour guide, Bang, a kilogram of natural weasel coffee goes for up to $3,000 a kilogram (2.2 pounds). Civets naturally consume the coffee cherries and they become partially digested. It is said that these digestive mechanisms enhance the flavor of the coffee, but once passed, they must be collected, cleaned, and roasted like other coffee beans. This type of “natural collection” is possible when someone actually seeks out weasel excrement in the wild.

There are farms though, and while I’m not a coffee connoisseur, I did try a cup, mostly to say I’d done it. I tried it without all the bells and whistles. Ok, I tried a spoonful without the “milk,” but it was bitter to me, just like any other black coffee I drink, so I doctored it up with some liquefied sugar and even added some fresh milk because that’s how I like my coffee. Was it good? Sure was, but I wouldn’t buy the beans, even farm produced “weasel coffee” goes for $180 per kilogram in Vietnam, and the variety produced in Indonesia is much more expensive. The ethical component of such coffee is not the point of my blog, suffice it to say I don’t need to purchase such coffee. At least in this regard, I’m not concerned that my habits worsen the lives of at least these animals.

Civets in captivity to increase production of “weasel coffee.”

It was neat to see the coffee trees, how they first produce a white, sweet smelling flower where eventually a “cherry” will grow. In Vietnam, all the beans are hand picked when ripe and dried in the sun for two to four weeks. The thick skin is then removed and the beans are roasted, some batches have oils added to them to enhance flavor. Butter, chicken, and even fish oil is used. The coffee here is good, although I’m no expert, it has a deep, rich flavor. It’s served quite strong, through a filter like device placed atop a small cup. Add in some sweetened condensed milk and you’ll have a mug of awesome in the palm of your hands. Get ready to take on the world. But, in moderation, like with all things! ?

P.S. I stayed at the Oscar Hostel in Da Lat. At the time of writing, the hostel was opened two weeks ago. I have to say this was one of my best Hostel stays. Bang, the manager and Linh, his girlfriend and owner have done a great job with making the place welcoming. I arrived at 5 am and Bang picked me up from the bus station. They make breakfast every morning, and one evening, we even had dinner together with some other guests. It was nice being able to speak to a local who knows English well. We shared some stories about life, politics, history, and the Vietnamese outlook on America, which is of interest to me. I did a day long motorbike tour with Bang as well. It’s one of the things to do in Da Lat, and while others had recommended specific companies, at the end of the day, I think they are all similar. Plus, seeing as Bang and Linh did so much for me, I didn’t mind paying them the money for the tour. It was great and again, I learned so much. I loved Da Lat. I’ve been a lot of places but I can honestly say if I wanted to live in Asia, this would be place on the top of my list. If you ever come, check out the hostel: http://oscarhostel.com.


Get lean or lose weight? Which do you choose?

I recently completed a webinar put on by Dietitian Central, a website that is certified to offer continuing education units for registered dietitians. Because I love sports nutrition, I’ve purchased credits to participate in the webinars of my choice. I don’t need anymore CEUs to renew my registration come 2018 as I’ve collected many over the last 4 years, but I enjoy learning and engaging my brain.

This webinar was conducted by Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, an RD practicing in the Dallas Ft. Worth area and although we don’t have to complete a test or questions at the end of the webinars, I always like to take notes.

Here are some of the take aways from this webinar. A lot of it is info I’m familiar with, but it never hurts to take these courses, and of course, I do learn new information.

So many of the clients I’ve worked with over the years have been for general weight loss. Athletes have different requirements, but anyone looking to lose body fat or change up their body composition can benefit from this information.

Our bodies are made up of four main components when looking at what makes up our weight: lean body mass, fat mass, water, and bones. A common goal of not only athletes, but many average gym goers, is to gain muscle and lose body fat. If your goal is simply to “lose weight,” can you be more specific? Do you want to lose body fat, or do you want to lose overall body mass (both fat and lean body mass, LBM)?

Would you rather have 5 pounds of muscle or 5 pounds of fat? Muscle makes up lean body mass.

A great way to know what our body composition looks like is to do a DXA scan or jump into a bodpod, but that’s not always accessible to most people. If your gym has an in body analysis device, you can use it, but always ensure to use the same machine at the same gym as there is variance between machines. While they are not 100% accurate, you can use your first reading as a baseline and go from there to monitor results.

Here’s a chart to see where you stand if you’re able to analyze your body composition:

Female Male
Essential Fat 10-12% 2-4%
Athletes 14-20% 6-13%
Fitness 21-24% 14-17%
Acceptable 25-31% 18-25%
Obese 32%+ 25%+

As you can tell, I took this photo from somewhere else!

Athletes have more to factor in when considering diet and meal plans. They typically need to consume more calories than the average gym goer and often their particular sport will dictate what types and how much food should be eaten. If you’re an athlete, you may have a difficult time getting in all the calories you need and if you’re in the leaning out phase, restricting energy, losing weight can be difficult. Actually, losing weight can be difficult for anybody! When we restrict energy, our drive to eat is stronger. More ghrelin, a hormone that signals hunger, is produced. When more ghrelin is produced, people may eat more, leading to weight gain, the opposite of the intended goal, weight loss. A common issue or reason for people to not stay within a calorie restricted diet necessary for weight loss is because they feel hungry. If this happens to you, there are some measures you can take. Ensure you’re getting adequate fiber in the diet. Fiber leads to a feeling of fullness and slows digestion. Some low calorie sources of fiber are in low carb vegetables. Adding some greens is a great way to not only get fiber, but other vital vitamins and minerals, so feel free to get some in with every meal. Another trick is to ensure adequate protein at mealtime and with snacks. It also digests slowly and has proven benefits when consumed over the course of a day.
On the flip side, leptin is the hormone that signal fullness. Eat slowly and pay attention to these cues to prevent over eating.
When it comes to energy expenditure, or simply, burning calories, there are four components.
RMR: Resting Metabolic Rate- the rate at which the body burns calories to sustain life. This is what you’d burn in a given day doing nothing. It costs calories to think and breathe. Our organs also burn a lot of calories.
TEF: Thermic effect of food: Eating food burns calories, but only to an extent. It comprises about 10% of calories burned per day and some foods burn more than others. Protein burns the most calories during digestion, about 30%, because of it’s complex process of metabolism. Carbohydrates about 5-10%, and fats, about 0-5%. To clarify, I looked this up on line and found a more specific breakdown for an example on bodybuilding.com actually, but it makes sense. The author writes, “If you eat 200 calories of protein, your body will use between 40-70 of them in digestion.” In that example, those numbers fall within that approximate 30% range.
EEE: Exercise Energy Expenditure: This accounts for how many calories are burned during exercise. This is the most variable component. The more we exercise, the more calories we burn.
NEAT: Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis: Energy expended through typically uncalculated movements and activity throughout the day. This can include walking up and down stairs, getting up to get something, even body posture contributes. Some people may expend more it they fidget often, tap their toe, bounce a leg, etc.

Something to think about: as we age, our RMR slows. Females can experience a 2% decline per decade and males, 3%.

Of the four components mentioned above, EEE is the most variable and depends on frequency, intensity, and duration of exercise. Furthermore, high intensity exercises will increase the amount of calories burned over the course of the day via EPOC, excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. According to ACE, the American Council on Exercise, “EPOC is the amount of oxygen required to restore your body to its normal, resting level of metabolic function.” This process requires additional energy so the more intense your workout, the more calories you’ll burn in a day. (But you don’t need to do high intensity workouts every day, allow the body time to recover).

So, what’s the best way to change your body composition? Do you want to lose weight? Add lean muscle mass? First, determine how many calories you need by figuring out your RMR and basic activity level. I shared a link in another post about this very subject, refer back to it here:
If you want to lose weight, subtract about 400-500 calories, but to start, don’t take in less than 1,500 per day (women). If you hit a plateau in the future, you’ll need something to manipulate, and calories are one of those things. Also, it’s difficult to get all the nutrients you need on a lower calorie diet. If you want to gain body mass, eat a few more hundred calories per day and lift weights. Look at how much protein you need. A good calculation is 1.5 g/kg body weight (one kg=2.2 pounds). Ensure you distribute your protein intake over the course of the day. You also need fat and carbohydrates, but this ratio is better chosen with goals and preferences in mind. Carbohydrates provide energy and can fuel an athlete for optimal performance. Fat can play a tasty roll in a low carbohydrate diet, but that route is not for everyone. Either way, make sure fat comprises at least 20% of the calories in your diet. With a standard 2,000 calorie diet, if minimum fat intake is 20%, then 200 calories, or 22 g of fat would be a guideline and I’d even say that’s a bit low (but I’m an avocado and peanut butter lover, so I need my fats)!

PB and Avocado

A few tips for weight loss: eat small meals frequently, don’t skip meals, (not eating enough calories is not the optimal route to weight loss), after exercise, ensure you have a snack that contains both carbohydrates and protein to replenish glycogen and aid in muscle repair. Avoid refined carbohydrates, fried foods, and alcohol and also watch beverage intake. Drinks can be a source of added calories.

A few tips for weight gain: increase calories, eat small meals over the course of the day, make sure you eat breakfast, add some high calorie foods such as 2% milk, nut butters, high calorie protein supplements, have a pre and post workout snack, and you can even have something mid-workout to fuel you even more. Have a high calorie meal or shake before bed (I prefer casein shakes) and make sure you get quality calories!

Whatever your goals may be, whether it’s adding lean body mass, losing body fat, or training for optimal performance, you can achieve them. Monitor your workouts, calories in and out, and make sure to rest and recover!

What is a well formulated diet?

If you’ve read my blog or ever talked to me in person, you may have heard me say I can be supportive of a variety of diets, but they must be well formulated. I also say to eat a nutrient dense, varied diet. What is a well formulated diet and is it nutrient dense?
The way I see it, a well formulated diet is one that provides a variety of foods to meet nutrient needs while still allowing an individual to meet his or her goals. I didn’t come up with the phrase myself, but I have borrowed it from a book I read, “The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance,” by Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney. If this title sounds familiar to you, that’s because I referenced it in my last blog about low carb diets.
When I was a graduate student, I always subscribed to not only the “calories in versus calories out” lifestyle to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, but also to the recommendations we are taught in our nutrition courses. Briefly, these include consuming approximately 50% of calories from carbohydrates, about 20-30% from fat, and the rest from protein. More specifically, protein needs can be calculated at .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which would amount to 50 grams of protein for somebody who weighs 140 pounds. As time has gone on however, my outlook and experience regarding these guidelines have changed. That’s not to say they are wrong or we cannot be healthy if we follow them, but people have specific goals and in order to meet them, these recommendations may not always yield the desired results. And by people, I’m including myself. Having been a figure competitor with a couple years of my life dedicated to body building, you see how the human body can change and transform based on diet, exercise, and good ole hard work!
I no longer follow a “diet.” I eat to meet my goals when that’s a focus in my life (right now, travel is my focus so I’m on a “whatever diet” for the time being). When eating to meet my goals, which is usually body fat loss, I eat within my calorie needs and alter my macronutrient intake from the above mentioned recommendations to maximize muscle maintenance and growth and to promote fat loss. In this way, I kind of do follow the “if it fits your macros” lifestyle, but to an extent because as an RD, I make, and want others to make healthy choices. If you look at any IIFYM hashtags on Instagram, you will see people don’t often eat the most healthy or nutrient dense meals. ?
Anyway, enough about me! What are some common diets we know about? Low carb, high fat like an Atkins style diet, paleo, gluten free, the list goes on, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s just look at components of a healthy diet. If you incorporate a variety of foods from these lists over the course of the week, you will be consuming a nutrient dense diet. If your intake is limited based on the specific diet you follow, like a low carb diet, because this is so common, then choose the most healthy options within your guidelines. For example, when choosing what fats to include, choose an avocado or chopped almonds instead of foods that are full of saturated fats like palm and coconut oils. Or if you follow a vegetarian diet, incorporate healthy sources of proteins such as beans and lentils.

These lists are not all inclusive. If there are other healthy options out there, by all means, include those foods, this is just to serve as a rough guideline. I’m not going into detail about what foods we need and why, but suffice it to say it’s important to follow these simple guidelines. Most people don’t want to get into the specifics anyway, but if you do have a question, let me know.

Let’s look at macronutrients first, they make up the meals on our plates.
Whole grains: brown rice, oatmeal, barley, quinoa, corn tortillas, whole grain bread, plain popcorn
Legumes, beans and lentils (also provide protein), are a nutrient dense, fiber filled food
Starchy vegetables: sweet potatoes, corn, peas, pumpkin
Fruit: fresh fruit and naturally dried fruit (not dried with sugar), fruit cups in natural juices
Chicken breast, turkey cutlets, lean ground chicken and turkey, lean beef, pork tenderloin, white fish, salmon, shellfish, eggs, tofu, tempeh (and beans and legumes as mentioned above)
Avocado, nuts and nut butters, olives, olive and canola oil, flax seeds

Choose the healthier fat when possible.

It may seem some foods are missing. Where are the vegetables, you ask? Non-starchy vegetables should be a component of a well-formulated diet. They are low in calories and carbohydrates, are vitamin and mineral dense, and fiber full. I often give them a section of their own. As you travel the globe, you can see the list of vegetables is seemingly endless, but those with bright green, red, orange, and other vivid colors are the most nutritious. They should be incorporated at every mealtime and can double as a snack as well. Spinach, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, eggplant, carrots, cauliflower… You get the picture! Eat them. Another food group that gets it’s own special list is dairy. It has a spot on the government’s “My Plate” in the form of a cup of milk, but of course diary includes a variety of products, not just milk. Yogurt, cheese, cream, even ice cream count. I know not everybody likes diary, some are lactose intolerant, but I love it and want people to know it can play a role in a healthy diet. It is a good source of calcium and can add flavor to a variety of different dishes. Yogurt can satisfy a sweet tooth and a casein protein shake before bed time can spare muscle loss during our nighttime fast.

In proper portions, dairy can play a role in a healthful diet.

These are the components that make up a healthy plate, lead to a well formulated diet, and an overall healthy lifestyle, especially when paired with physical activity or regularly scheduled exercise! “Diet,” exercise, and good ole hard work does a body good. You may ask why there isn’t any bacon, butter, or cheesy broccoli soup on my list. Those foods fit into a low carb diet. Yes, you are right, but as a dietitian, I want you to choose the most healthy foods a majority of the time, regardless of the diet you follow. Bacon is ok, sometimes. If you are an athlete that follows a high carbohydrate diet, we (RDs) would rather you choose Greek yogurt with fruit and granola to refuel post exercise as opposed to the pop tarts and Oreos the IIFYM followers so proudly promote.

What “diet” or healthy lifestyle habits do you follow? What yields the best results in your book? If you need help creating a well formulated diet, let me know!