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!


Brunei, Bhutan, Burma: What Will It Be?

It’s been a year of life on the road, on the go, a homeless nomad. I leave Asia for Dubai, 2 weeks in Europe, and then a month long trip back to the states. I’ll arrive just a bit short of having spent one full year in Asia and now I’m going to try to answer the big question: “What’s your favorite place?”
As you may know from previous posts, I like it everywhere, so I’ll make this a round up of sorts, a list of the best, most interesting, and unique moments, and perhaps a few of the bad… Let’s briefly recap: China, Mongolia, Nepal, Bhutan, Thailand, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Malaysia (on Borneo), Brunei, Indonesia, United States, Thailand, Myanmar, Thailand. Well, I’ve definitely spent the most time in Thailand, that’s for sure. I didn’t plan on it, but that’s how the cookie crumbled. Actually, my meniscus crumbled but we can save that bit for later. So here goes, in list form, and in no particular order.

World’s best sunset: Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

Most beautiful spots: many of the islands in Thailand.
Most breathtaking views: Himalayas of Nepal
Best Flight: Kathmandu to Bhutan and seeing Mt. Everest along the way.
Biggest accomplishment: Crossing the Thorung-La Pass along the Annapurna Circuit. 5,416 meters high! 200 km trekked and 17 days on the trail.

Made it through the Thorung-La Pass!

Most rewarding moments: Living and working with the Gautam family and Mountain Heart Nepal.
Best group of friends: All the people I met and worked with in Lake Khovsgal, Mongolia, and my sister, Yadam!

Friends at Nature’s Door on Lake Khovsgal.

Best travel buddy (and person I miss the most): Elena Duerst. We met on Day One of the Annapurna Circuit and spent 24 days together. We never got tired of each other and had endless jokes and laughs.

Elena and I up early for our Poon Hill sunrise hike.

Most unique gym experience: Kathmandu, Nepal
Nicest gym: Virgin Fitness in Bangkok, but only went twice, so Elite on Ko Samui is definitely the runner up. I went there for 7 weeks.
Worst gym: The one on Phi Phi, in Thailand. But, I managed to workout for 2 hours, so it wasn’t that bad!
Best hostel: Hom Hostel and Cooking Club, Bangkok, Thailand.
Worst hostel: Backpacker’s Freak Hostel, Melaka, Malaysia.
Best hotel: The Marriott in Putrajaya, Malaysia. Felt like a castle!
Most worthwhile paid trip: 5 day Gobi desert tour in Mongolia. I kept myself on such a tight budget so I didn’t want to splurge, but it was well worth it!
Most memorable border crossing: By long tail boat from Southern Thailand to Myanmar.
Most memorable meal: Gobi Desert. Bland Tsoiven, a noodle based Mongolian dish. When I finished, I had a pile of goat hair next to my plate.
Most unsavory dish: A bite of a scorpion in China. And stinky tofu. Still makes my skin crawl.
Favorite meal in general: Cashew Chicken and loved all the tempeh and peanut sauce in Indonesia.
Most Frequented Restaurant: Lebanese House in Bangkok for the Fattoush
Longest flight: Hong Kong to Dallas: 14.5 hours.
Shortest flight: Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan in Malaysian Borneo: 45 minutes.
Most dream fulfilling moment: diving with mantas at Manta Point, Nusa Penida, Indonesia.

Mantas from my dive, but not my photo.

Most memorable moment: Injuring my knee and learning I tore my ACL and meniscus.
Scariest moment: coming out of anesthesia after surgery and not knowing where I was while in lots of pain.

After surgery, trying to eat.

My list could go on but I’ll stop there! It has been a memorable year and I often reminisce about all I’ve done and the people I’ve met. I still sometimes cannot believe everything that has happened, from the good times, to getting injured and dealing with recovery, flying home for my grandfather’s funeral, to learning my godfather passed away shortly after.
When I ask myself what “the best” was, the image changes. There’s no one best place, moment, or experience. Every place and situation has provided me with such diverse memories and places are so different. The Himalayas of Bhutan and Nepal are so different from the beaches in Thailand. The people of Myanmar are so kind compared to the people in say, China. Interacting with locals is an enriching component of being in a country, but sharing accomplishments with fellow travelers is rewarding in a different way.

New Friends in Nepal

I really enjoyed visiting Bhutan and spending 24 hours in Brunei was not enough, but I enjoyed it there as well. Perhaps if I would have been able to stay longer (in both places), I could form a more solid opinion of those countries. When it comes down to it, however, if I had to pick my “favorite” place, I’d have to go with Myanmar, for so many reasons. Yeah, the oil laden food isn’t always that good, travel can be long and arduous, infrastructure is lacking, and sometimes it’s difficult to get local currency, but the country has its charm. The people are kind, it’s a fascinating place with a rich history, a convergence of cultures, and beautiful landscapes. And I find there’s something so alluring about taking the road less traveled. Myanmar is a diamond in the rough, it’s raw, largely unedited, and still unaffected by the negative aspects of tourism. All in all, it was such a positive and captivating experience.
If I were to write about all the awesome people I’ve met on this trip, I’d have to write a blog dedicated just to that! Suffice it to say there have been many and I don’t even think I could write about all of them! However, there have been some noteworthy individuals that have made my life in Thailand so much better than what could have been. Surgery alone in a foreign country is no fun, so I’m grateful to Dr. Panya for fixing me, and for my physical therapist, Dion, for helping me heal. I’m thankful to the staff at the Blocks Hostel for their support in the three weeks I spent there post op and to Toon Pavalin and staff at Hom Hostel for their kindness in the five weeks I spent there. I don’t think I would have survived my time in Bangkok had I not found them and in the meantime, I met others. My “bodyguard,” Tyson, helped me out so much, was able to get me into many gyms, and simply became a close friend to me, something that’s hard to find when you’re a nomad. And last but not least, all the travelers and travel buddies I’ve met along the way. It’s been a good trip and I appreciate it all and everyone who has been a part. Let’s see what the next year brings!

Most unusual island tour. Saw an abondoned resort and got a ride back to the pier on a tractor with some locals. All around an interesting day.

How does a low carb diet work?

Did you know the body’s main source of fuel is carbohydrates? General recommendations are that we consume about 50% of our calories from carbohydrates, but what happens when there’s a shift and why do some people follow low carb diets? If we need carbs but don’t eat them, then what fuel do we use? Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in our liver and muscles. If we don’t use them, they are converted into triglycerides, one of the main components of our body fat. When we exercise, the body gets energy from the carbohydrates and fat we get in our food, but if we don’t eat, things are a little different. Untrained athletes can store 80 mmol/kg of glycogen in skeletal muscle. An endurance trained athlete can store 125 mmol/kg, and after following a high carbohydrate diet for a few days, up to 200 mmol/kg can be stored. So, the more physically fit we are, the more carbohydrates we can store, meaning we can participate in activity for a longer duration. Additionally, the liver can store up to 100 g of glycogen as well so getting the recommended amount of carbohydrates on a daily basis ensures your body will have adequate amounts of energy when it needs it.

If you include carbohydrates in your diet, they should be complex for the health benefits.

When we eat food that contains sugar (carbohydrates), it enters into the blood stream and insulin, an anabolic hormone, is released. Insulin helps transport the glucose from our foods into the muscle or liver cells and that’s how we get energy from it to perform our daily activities and exercise. The brain uses about 15-20 grams of glucose within two hours of eating and about 100-145 g over the course of the day. As long as we consume glucose, the body will use it for fuel, and if we eat more than we use, we can save it for later, in the form of fat. This is one reason why carbs get a bad rap- if we eat too many, we gain weight, but in all honestly, if we eat too much of anything, we can gain weight. Additionally, when there are carbs in the system and glucose in the blood, there’s less breakdown of amino acids and fat as a source of fuel. This is why you read recommendations to have some carbs pre and post workout- they help spare lean body mass, your muscles, from being broken down to provide a source of fuel when we exercise (or participate in any other form of activity that requires energy).
So, what about low carb diets then? The goal of a low carb diet is to initially deplete the body’s stores of glycogen, deprive it of carbohydrates, and “train it,” or allow it to adapt to using fat as a source of fuel. In a starvation situation (not recommended), fewer carbohydrates are available and fats will be used. The liver cannot supply glucose so blood sugars drop, insulin levels decrease, fat breakdown INCREASES, and amino acids (the building blocks of protein that make up our muscles) are released from the muscle tissue. This means we can and will use both existing body fat and muscle mass to supply energy to the body, but again, that’s in a state of starvation, when we are not supplying anything to the body. If we keep that up, many changes take place on cellular, hormonal, and physiological levels, and eventually, we die. It takes about 60 days to die of starvation, which is obviously why NOT feeding yourself is not recommended, as mentioned above! Supplying the body with adequate amounts of fat and protein, however, while following a low carbohydrate diet, can minimize amino acid release from the muscles and maximize use of preexisting body fat as a source of fuel which is why many people find it to be a favorable diet for weight (body fat) loss.

Some low carb salmon meatballs I once made. Some of the meals on a low carb diet can be quite tasty!

Without carbohydrates, how does the brain get fuel? Ketone bodies, the production of which takes about 2-3 days, but become the brain’s primary source of fuel by week 3 of a low carb diet. They are a substance made from beta-hydroxybutryic acid and acetoacetic acid and via a long chain of complex events, they can be produced during starvation, when insulin levels are low, or if we eat a low carbohydrate, high fat (LCHF) diet. They are important because they are a substance that can provide fuel for the brain whereas fats cannot. Within 3 days, ketones will provide 30-40 percent of the energy needed but in that adaptation phase, the body will feel sluggish due to the drop in carbohydrates. It takes time, but once your brain and body adapts, you will feel better, no more “hangriness!”

It takes some time to adapt to a low carb diet, so if you make the switch, you may get hangry at first!

There are many changes that take place when following a low carb diet. Glycogen is depleted, hormones shift, and there is an increase in fat breakdown to supply the body and brain with energy. Ketone production spares the body’s stores of protein and is a positive adaption so as to save protein to be used for necessary functions. Many people enjoy following a LCHF diet for its results with overall body weight loss. As long as it is a well formulated diet, there are many benefits of such a diet. Additionally, according to “The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance,” by Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney, there are many implications for a LCHF diet in endurance activity, but for peak performance and high intensity activity, carbs are king. As always, choose an eating pattern that meets your needs and ensure it is well formulated and nutrient dense.

Myanmar and the Little Hpa-An Hostel

I wanted to write a blog about Myanmar, but wasn’t sure what specifically to focus on. So after I checked into the Little Hpa-An Hostel, I was inspired. Furthermore, this blog was the first of its kind for me, I did a brief interview, but compiled the answers into paragraph form. Read on.

The Little Hpa-An Hostel

You may have seen me use both Myanmar and Burma when referring to the southeast Asian country that borders Thailand and Laos to its east, Bangladesh and India to the west and China in the north. Myanmar also has a very long and beautiful coastline, 1,200 miles of beaches that face the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The largest city is Yangon, but the capital is Naypyidaw. The majority ethnic group are the Bamar, or as called by the British, Burmese. In the 19th century, after three Anglo-Burmese wars, the British took over and Burma became a British colony. They were granted independence in 1948 and were a democratic nation, but shortly after in 1962, there was a coup d’etat. A military dictatorship ruled the country until 2011. When the junta dissolved, a lot changed, including the country’s name. Under the junta, Burma was closed off to the outside world. The press was censored, and many political, governmental, and other key figures were jailed. Now people are adjusting to a democratic society, news papers, and of course the new world of social media to include Facebook and Instagram. SIM cards are readily available, data is cheap, and everyone, every where, has a cell phone. You can see cell towers all over and coverage across the country is much better than I expected. So back to wording, yes, Myanmar is the official name, but Myanma is actually the demonym! It sounds awkward to me, so I use Burmese instead. I don’t think it’s an issue as a lot of locals use it as well. As far as the rest of the history, not really my forte, but hit up google for more!

Karst formations and rice paddies in Hpa-An, Myanmar.

I recently stayed at a hostel in Hpa-An, a city about 100 miles from Yangon. It’s not too far from the coast and the countryside is dotted with karst mountains that shoot up from the plains around them. According to one website, Hpa-An has a “backpacker feel to it,” but the reality is, few tourists come here, and as of three days ago, there was no hostel to be found in this capital of the Karen State. Meet Dennis (his “western” name), one of three brothers whose idea it was to open the area’s first backpacker friendly accommodation. The 24 year old resident of Yangon saw an opportunity for growth away from the more frequented Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake, and the unique setting would provide travelers with a new view of Myanmar. The Karen people here are “different,” the area is good for climbing, there are loads of natural caves to explore, tons of pagodas to visit, and there is a Thai border crossing 60 miles to the east. Now with the ease of entering Myanmar with an eVisa, more and more travelers can arrive overland from Thailand.

Kyuak Ka Lat Monastery

The Burmese brothers had a vision and a plan. They put their educational backgrounds, construction, business, and design, together to create an innovative and unique hostel in the heart of the city. The interior design itself was influenced by Jack White, the lead singer of the White Stripes, an American rock duo from Detroit, Michigan, a world away from Myanmar. The yellow, red, black, and white colors along with some animal figures set the theme for the newly constructed hostel. I honestly can’t tell you more beyond that because I don’t know much about the White Stripes except for their single “Seven Nation Army.” But ok, it provides for some interesting decor nonetheless and Dennis hopes some day Jack White himself will visit the hostel he so influenced!

White Stripes influenced decor in the kitchen area.

The people of Myanmar have yet to be accustomed to the notion of travelers and adventurers visiting their country. I’ve been told Myanmar is like Thailand was 30 or 50 years ago. The people are incredibly friendly, they smile, and while some give an inquisitive stare, upon greeting them with the local “Mingala Ba,” they show their maroon betel nut stained teeth and flash a bright red smile. People wave and yell hello from wherever they may be, be it from the inside of a car, on a motorbike, or even in a shop or home. Children run up to you and shake hands and people are all around friendly and kind. They don’t bother or pester you to buy stuff, they don’t ask you for money, and they don’t expect handouts of any kind from anyone. When I asked Dennis if he thought any of this would change, he said it’s inevitable. With tourism comes money, and eventually, people want it. So with that said, I asked why he’d want to “entice” tourists by catering to them with his shiny new hostel. But his hope is that people will leave Myanmar with an experience. That they will take away something greater than a trinket or an Instagram worthy photo… That they will come here and see this “precious” country for all it has to offer: kind people, beautiful beaches, pristine nature, tasty food, and a unique and varying culture. He said Myanmar isn’t a place for one to come and party, like so many areas of Thailand where people don’t respect the local customs and culture. So often, tourists don’t fully appreciate the country they visit, and he feels he doesn’t want this place to “turn into Bangkok,” or be viewed as just a place to visit because it’s cheap. Come to Myanmar, come to Hpa-An and stay in the Little Hpa-An Hostel, see a confluence of culture of sorts, with it’s White Stripes influenced decor while enjoying a local style breakfast. But leave Myanmar with an experience, meet the people, respect and preserve the country.

One of the many Buddhist temple cave sites in the area.

On day three of it’s opening, the Little Hpa-An Hostel is nearly fully booked, and this is considered to be the off season! When I asked Dennis if he felt this was a success, he said no. He said it’s a hostel and of course budget travelers would come, it’s better than a hotel and it’s the only one around! But he said they need to put some hard work into the place, because if there’s “No struggle, there’s no story to tell.” He asked for feedback, a trip advisor rating is so important to so many business owners and getting the word out is key for business. What improvements can be made? How can the hostel be unique and innovative while meeting the goal of preserving and promoting the culture of the area?
The Little Hpa-An Hostel will strive to be different from the hotel culture that currently predominates the accommodation scene in Myanmar. Guests can meet and mingle with locals and other travelers alike, they can enjoy a local style breakfast with a fresh brewed cup of coffee, not a “3 in 1” blend, and at the end of the day, the weary traveler can take a hot shower and sleep in a comfortable bed. So new in fact, some mattresses still have the plastic wrapping on them!
Myanmar is a beautiful country with friendly people and amazing places to explore. If you’re in town, check in to the Little Hpa-An Hostel. Be prepared for some breath taking views and lots of step climbing during the day, and at night, rest in the most comfortable bed in the area. Tell them I sent you! ☺️