Cocoa: The Food of the Gods
I grew up in Pennsylvania and one of the highlights of my summers was the annual trip to Hershey Park. The lampposts are topped with Hershey Kiss shaped streetlights and the air in the town is infused with a pleasant chocolate smell. There is a museum/factory where you can take tours and learn all about chocolate but the real fun is the amusement park and the Sooper Dooper Looper!
Funny thing is that I have never been much of a chocolate eater and it is only in recent years that I have added cocoa to my arsenal of nutrient dense foods. I am sure that everyone has heard somewhere from someone that chocolate is “good for you” but what exactly does that mean? How much, what type and really what does it do?
While you might flag this and say “conflict of interest”, Hershey has an entire Center for Health and Nutrition devoted to studying the health benefits of this food. The site is full of great information and is worth a look http://www.hersheys.com/nutrition-professionals/default.aspx For instance, cocoa powder is the end product after much of the fat or cocoa butter is removed, natural cocoa powder has no modifications, and alkalized or “Dutch” cocoa is treated to raise the pH and reduce some of the bitterness.
Research on the health benefits center on the antioxidant compounds in cocoa. Think of antioxidants as substances that counteract damage to your cells caused by environmental pollutants, substances in our food and water, aging, and even exercise. This is where the concept of nutrient density enters the equation again. Food choices that are whole and unprocessed and include fruits, vegetables, teas, beans, and seeds that are rich in antioxidant activity can help to minimize the damage our cells undergo on a day to day basis. While still in their infancy, studies on the compounds in chocolate and cocoa have revealed benefits for the heart, brain, managing blood sugar and decreasing the signs of aging.
Both dark and milk chocolate contain flavanols but dark chocolate has more and white chocolate has none. If you want to add this food to your diet as a way to increase the quality of your nutrient intake, then I would suggest using organic unalkalized cocoa powder and/or cacoa nibs. Cacao nibs are made from crushed beans and are the original chocolate chip. They are crunchy and flavorful. For the organic cocoa I buy NOW brand http://www.nowfoods.com/Foods/real-food/Products/M074399.htm as they list the actual flavanol content. Nativas Naturals is a brand of the nibs that can be found at Whole Foods http://www.navitasnaturals.com/products/cacao/cacao-nibs.html
So the next question is: how much cocoa is needed to provide health benefits? Most studies used much more than you would want to add to your diet so there are no clear guidelines as of yet. And don’t get confused by the recommendation to add cocoa flavanols to your diet and translate that into “eat more chocolate.” Chocolate is high in saturated fat, sugar and calories. To reap the health benefits of the flavanols stick to unprocessed cocoa powder, bittersweet chocolate, unsweetened unprocessed dark chocolate and cacao nibs.
Here are some suggestions for adding this nutrient rich food to your diet:
- Add 1 tablespoon cocoa powder to your recovery smoothie
- Add 2 tablespoons cocoa powder to your favorite black bean soup recipe
- Add 1 tablespoon cocoa powder or nibs to hot cereals
- Add ¼ cup cocoa powder to pancake batter or muffin batter
- Get out of your recipe rut and try a recipe for mole – chocolate is a key ingredient
- Stir a tablespoon cocoa powder or cacao nibs into your yogurt
- Add cacao nibs to salads, trail mix, anywhere you would use chocolate chips
This Valentine’s Day why not treat yourself to this luscious recovery smoothie:
2 Tbs organic cocoa powder
1 cup frozen cherries (also full of antioxidants)
1 scoop protein powder or 1 cup high protein yogurt like Greek yogurt
1 cup low-fat chocolate dairy or soy milk
Enjoy adding this nutritious food to up the quality of your diet!
Nutrition Strategies for Traveling
The summer is drawing to a close so you may be planning on sneaking in one last trip before the kids go back to school, or you have your races lined up for fall and all of them require some travel. In either case, you should have a plan or checklist of nutrition strategies to keep you on track and well fueled.
Personally, I am very particular about the foods I eat so I always plan ahead and pack various foods when I am traveling. More than once a hungry travel has looked at my fresh green salad or hummus on an airplane with envy. And while it may be a bit of a pain to gather and pack up healthy items to go, in the end you will be glad you did. It is usually a challenge to maintain optimal nutrition when on the road, and if you are an athlete you need to take control of your own success and be more organized.
By finding out what food to expect at your destination, you can include what you need to avoid problems like inadequate carbohydrate or protein intake, dehydration, GI issues (stomach upset, constipation), and unintended weight loss or gain. And if you are a family headed out for a weekend in the mountains, planning ahead can keep everyone on track and decrease the temptation to have a diet of junk food and fast food that will leave everyone feeling less than energetic.
So for starters, here are some basic tips if traveling by air:
- Pack snacks to take with you (I have a great list of suggestions below).
- Buy some water after you pass through security.
- Avoid drinking alcohol on the plane as this will promote urination contributing to the dehydration caused by flying.
- Again, take fluids and snacks with you so you don’t have to rely on what is available at convenience stores or have the added expense.
- Take your pre-competition, competition, and post-competition foods with you. Cardinal rule is to never try new foods on race day. Not all sporting events serve nutritious food or if they do, it isn’t a complete recovery meal.
- Check out restaurants in the area before you go so you have a plan.
- Many hotels these days have rooms that include microwaves and mini refrigerators. Call ahead, or request that you have these appliances. If the rooms don’t have them, check to see if there is a breakfast included as there is usually a microwave in the breakfast area.
- Aseptically packaged soymilk/ regular milk – plain for cereal and chocolate for refueling. Soy and cow’s milk are the best choices since they contain protein and carbohydrates as opposed to almond, rice, and coconut which contain mostly carbs.
- Aseptically packaged coconut water for rehydrating after your race, airplane trip, or workout.
- Packets of tea and single serve packets of Starbucks coffee if you have to have a good cup o’ joe like I do.
- Nuts in single serving bags (I especially like the 100 calorie packs of almonds).
- Single serve peanut butters. Justin’s makes single serve packs that you can buy at most grocery stores http://www.justinsnutbutter.com/
- Single serve oatmeal. One of my favorite new things are packets of organic oatmeal that come in a nifty pouch that includes a line for measuring the water http://threesisterscereal.com/instant-oatmeal/ I got mine at Whole Foods but I have also seen them at Fry’s – yummy. Of course any type of instant oatmeal is a good bet for travel.
- Kashi Go Lean is also good for travel as it is high in protein and fiber and is very filling. I portion it out into snack size Ziplocs.
- I also like to take a variety of the mini nutrition bars like the mini Larabars and mini Clif when I travel plus a couple of full size ones. I Iike the Clif and Larabars because they have few ingredients some of which are organic.
- Single servings of protein powders also come in handy. My favorite recovery meal is oatmeal with fruit and protein powder. There are countless varieties available at most health food stores.
- If you can find it, aseptically packaged hummus is good on the go. Wild Garden makes a single serve shelf stable product http://wildgarden.elsstore.com/ and Sabra has one to go that includes pretzels http://sabra.com/products/category/Grab-Go-Packs
- Of course fruit is a must - things that won’t spoil quickly like apples and dried fruit. Single serve applesauce also travels well.
- I don’t eat meat, but if you do, pouches of tuna and salmon would be good to include.
- Don’t omit more perishable items- just use them within a few hours of travel. Food safety is always a concern so remember the 2 hour rule: never eat something that has been left in the “Danger Zone” (i.e. room temperature) for more than 2 hours, or if you do, do it at your own risk.
- Hard vegetables like baby carrots travel really well as do uncooked broccoli and zucchini and all are great for snacking.
- Single serve microwaveable rice bowls. I like the Lundberg organic ones http://lundberg.elsstore.com/view/category/4431-heat---eat-organic-brown-rice-bowls/ but Minute Rice also makes them.
- Single serve dehydrated soup cups are also good to pack, especially the bean varieties like lentil and split pea – lots of protein and fiber too.
- Fig bars are a great high carbohydrate sports travel food as are granola bars.
- Don’t forget to pack a Tupperware or two just in case and some plastic utensils. But don’t make the mistake I made and leave your Swiss Army knife in your purse so that you are asked to “surrender” it to a TSA agent.
- Oh and let’s not forget one of the most important nutrients – water, along with some packets of electrolytes.
Blueberries Are Great Food
I love berries – all sorts of berries, but since July was National Blueberry Month I want to highlight the benefits of this nutritious fruit. July was proclaimed National Blueberry Month in 1999 by the United States Department of Agriculture. Blueberries are one of the few fruits native to North America and were introduced to the pilgrims by Native Americans.
This miniature fruit is chock full of nutrients and is a superstar when it comes to antioxidant properties. In fact, according to data from the USDA Human Research Center on Aging, a serving of blueberries provides one of the highest levels of antioxidant activity of all fruits and vegetables. This is due to the naturally occurring levels of vitamins C and E, and the phytochemicals which include anthocyanins, proanthocyanidins, myricetin, quercetin, resveratrol, and ellagic acid. For athletes in particular a high intake of dietary antioxidants can help to reduce damage to cells resulting from the free radical damage produced during strenuous activity. For the less active in the group, nutrients in blueberries have been found through research to have a litany of benefits including lowering the risk of urinary tract infection, protection against cardiovascular disease by lowering total cholesterol and bad or LDL cholesterol, improving eye health, acting as an anti-cancer nutrient, and even improving cognitive function by decreasing short term memory loss (http://www.blueberry.org/Antioxidant.pdf ).
Another good thing know to about blueberries is that blueberries have a fairly low Glycemic Index (GI) score and are in the range of 40-53 out of 100, which means they have a favorable effect on blood sugar. Foods with a low GI help to maintain even energy levels because they are absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream than foods with a high GI such as bananas (60-70) and honey which has a score of 87 (http://www.glycemicindex.com/). One cup of blueberries (at around 84 calories) has about 4 grams of fiber which adds to their beneficial effects on blood sugar.
Whether you eat fresh or frozen blueberries, wild, highbrush, lowbrush, or rabbiteye it doesn’t matter as long as you eat them! Research has shown that freezing does not decrease their antioxidant activity, however exposure to heat does so add to uncooked dishes like smoothies, yogurt, and breakfast cereals. If you can, buy organic since blueberries retain a fair amount of pesticide residue due to their delicate nature. They rank #10 on the “Dirty Dozen” list of foods highest in pesticide residue developed by the Environmental Working Group (http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/).
For a new twist on a super nutritious fruit in combination with a super nutritious grain, try this breakfast recipe courtesy of The World’s Healthiest Foods: Quinoa Cereal with Fresh Fruit http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?dbid=245&tname=recipe
In case you missed the headlines, on June 2nd the USDA unveiled its new food icon designed to provide guidance to Americans on how to plan a healthy diet. The new icon is a plate, called MyPlate, and it replaces the MyPyramid icon. I love it since I already use a “portion plate” when I counsel people on diet. A plate is something people can relate to much more than an abstract pyramid. Just a bit of background, the Dietary Guidelines and the accompanying food icon are revised every 5 years as mandated by Congress. It is interesting to see how the icon has changed over the years and if you are interested in looking at the different versions, the USDA site has a brief history on its website http://www.choosemyplate.gov/downloads/MyPlate/ABriefHistoryOfUSDAFoodGuides.pdf
I am actually pleasantly surprised at the new icon and the fairly equal prominence given to each food group. It is no secret that food lobbyists and politics have had a significant impact on how our dietary guidelines and food icons have been designed. Yet MyPlate truly seems to have the health of Americans at heart. The tool is easy to understand and encourages people to fill half of their plates with fruits and vegetables and to be moderate with grain and protein consumption. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5935a1.htm?s_cid=mm5935a1_w showed that in 2009 only 32% of the population were eating 2 fruits per day and a mere 26% were eating 3 vegetables. Add to that the fact that fruit juice was counted as a fruit and that two of those vegetables were French fries and ketchup and it is no wonder the obesity epidemic continues to worsen.
That brings us back to using MyPlate. Theoretically if a person follows MyPlate at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they could easily eat 6 servings of fruits and vegetables. The USDA website has some great information and tips on how to build a healthy plate http://www.choosemyplate.gov/index.html including sample menus and recipes. I think some other really important things for Americans to keep in mind is that the grains should be mostly whole grain (whole wheat pasta, brown rice, etc), the protein lean (chicken breast, tofu, beans), and the dairy low-fat. Oh did you pick up on the fact that it says “protein” and not “meat”? Bet the meat industry and lobbyists weren’t too happy about that.
All in all I think this is a step in the right direction for providing easy to use guidance to Americans on how to put together a balanced, healthy meal. The trick will be trading out those 15 inch plates for a more reasonable 9 inch plate.
2011 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticide Free Produce
Summertime is here and there are so many varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables available that you almost can’t help but get in your 5 servings each day. If you are lucky enough to have locally, organically grown produce in your area you should definitely take advantage of what summer has to offer. But if you are buying your produce at the local grocery store you may not know how the produce was grown and if it contains pesticide residue or not. And while it would be great if we could all afford to buy 100% of our produce from organic growers, for most people this isn’t feasible economically. So how do you know which foods have the most pesticide residue and which have the least? This is where the Environmental Working Group comes in. They have just recently released the 7th edition of their Shopper’s Guide to Pesticide Free Produce which has updated information on 53 fruits and vegetables. Wow – 53! That should about cover all of the bases.
Produce is ranked according to how many pesticides are on a peeled and washed sample and the results are based on data collected from the USDA and FDA from 2000 to 2009. You may have even caught the headlines on the news about apples becoming the new number 1 most contaminated type of produce replacing celery from last year. But should you really be concerned about pesticides on your produce when you are already worrying about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), hormones, and antibiotics in your food? You betcha especially if you are feeding little ones. Children are the most susceptible to the health problems associated with pesticide ingestion since they are developing and growing. The Environmental Protection Agency posts information on its website about the potential health effects of pesticides. Some pesticides contain carcinogens while other have affects on the nervous, hormone, and endocrine systems. Have a look at this graph to see how the levels of pesticides have increased over the years http://cfpub.epa.gov/eroe/index.cfm?fuseaction=detail.viewInd&lv=list.listByAlpha&r=224028&subtop=312
If you still aren’t convinced, consider this: eating 5 servings of fruits and vegetables from the dirty dozen list would mean ingesting an average of 14 pesticides a day, while eating the same number of servings from the clean 15 list would result in consuming fewer than 2 pesticides a day. I do want to throw in the caveat that it would still be better to eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables that have pesticides on them then to eat none at all, so don’t use this as an excuse to stop eating fresh produce.
To help you make informed decisions about what you buy, you can download a free copy of the guide by going to the Environmental Working Group’s website http://static.ewg.org/reports/2011/foodnews/pdf/2011EWGPesticideGuide.pdf What I really like about the guide is that you can cut it out and stick it in your wallet or purse for easy reference while you are shopping.
Enjoy the bounties of summer produce and happy eating!
Chi-chi-chi chia seeds
When you think of chia a visual of the novelty planters may come to mind. But instead of just growing the seeds you may want to think about adding them to your diet because they are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Chia seeds are an edible seed similar to flax seed, but they come from a desert plant called Salivia hispanica which is a member of the mint family. You might have guessed from the scientific name that the plant grows abundantly in Mexico but historically they were one of the “super foods” that were included in the diet of the Aztec and Mayan’s. Chia is actually the Mayan word for strength.
I’ve noticed that chia seeds are gaining in popularity and are becoming more readily available in health food stores. They are more expensive than flax seeds but they also offer a few advantages over flax:
- 2 tablespoons of chia seeds contains 5000+ mg omega-3 fatty acids versus the 2700 mg in 2 tablespoons of flax.
- Chia seeds are softer than flax seeds so they don’t have to be ground up before using. You may have learned from experience that if you eat whole flax seeds they make a great laxative and come out looking the same way they did when they went in! Okay I know, TMI.
- Chia seeds also have higher levels of antioxidants than flax seeds and because of this they can be stored for longer periods of time without becoming rancid.
- Chia seeds are also an excellent source of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc, and copper. Flax is a good source of magnesium.
- Both are great sources of fiber but chia has 6.9 grams in 2 tablespoons and flax has 4 grams.
- Both have a nutty flavor and are very versatile- sprinkle on salads, in smoothies, in oatmeal, in yogurt or cottage cheese.
All in all chia seeds offer a slight edge nutritionally over flax seeds but including either one in your diet is a great way to increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids can help to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease by making the blood less likely to clot, lowering bad cholesterol, and lowering blood pressure. Both can be purchased as oil, meal, flour, and seed. You many even find chia seeds turning up in a new wave of sports drinks. One study found that a beverage containing 50% chia seeds and 50% Gatorade was as effective as the 100% Gatorade in delaying fatigue http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Science-Nutrition/Omega-3-chia-seeds-may-be-carb-loaders-for-athletes-Study What is the advantage? Less refined sugar and more nutrition by way of the omega-3 and vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant content.
If you give chia a try let me know what you think.
Have a nutrition question? Email it to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jennifer Koslo, PhD, RD, CSSD, CPT
Koslo’s Nutrition Solutions, LLC