Constant cravings? Here’s 18 evidence-backed (or anecdotal) tips that will curb them.

Are you back into the swing of things but your taste buds aren’t?  It happens! Especially around this time of year where intake of sugar, alcohol and processed carbohydrates tends to be higher for most people, and while going cold turkey can be the best move, it’s sometimes easier said than done. The good news is that by reducing these foods, you’ll begin to lose the taste for them, and they’ll no longer hold the appeal that they had. For some though, completely removing them is a better idea – even small amounts can continue to drive the appetite for them. Regardless of which camp you fall into, here are some proven, some anecdotal, and some interesting ways to combat those cravings.

  1. The basics: build your plate based around protein and fibre, with fat for satiety. Protein is well known to be the most satisfying nutrient, and along with fibre (also key for adding bulk and feeling full) will keep most people satisfied longer than either carbohydrate or fat. Any starchy or carbohydrate-based foods are best if they are minimally processed (such as potatoes, kumara, legumes, fruit) as these will provide more nutrient bang for your buck). How much of each? Protein-type foods (meat, fish, eggs, poultry) aim for 1-2 palm-sized portions. Starchy carbs (if included) at around a fist-sized amount.  Fat? 1-2 thumb-sized amounts, depending on the type of protein portion you’re eating: a fattier cut might be satisfying enough, however a lean chicken breast will likely require some added fat to help satisfy you. And vegetables? Go for gold – other than the starchier varieties (mentioned above) you could fill your boots with these. For some people, having a full plate is essential to feeling satisfied and if you can do that by adding more volume, it is going to have a positive effect on the satiety from a meal (that’s definitely me). For some ideas, check out my recipe e-book or my online coaching service.
  2. Get rid of anything that is ‘your poison’- if you are the person that hears the icecream calling you from the freezer, it is much better off out of the house. Out of sight, out of mind.
  3. Put all the ‘treat’ type food in one place in your house, preferably above eye level. This will save you seeing the Christmas cake when you are grabbing the eggs, and the chocolate almonds when you are searching for the bottle of olive oil. Constant reminders of all the things you are trying not to eat will NOT help your cause.
  4. Chew your food properly at each meal. Aim for 30 times per mouthful. That way you’ll digest your nutrients effectively, feel more nourished and less likely to be hungry an hour after eating because you wolfed that meal down.
  5. Do not substitute those refined sugars for ‘natural’ sugars. That dried fruit is pretty much just sugar – and (a few nutrients and fibre aside) no better than sugar and will continue to drive your sugar cravings. You shouldn’t rely on dried fruit (or any sweet food that is marketed as ‘refined sugar free’) as a substantial nutrient source . Any additional fibre or nutrients they provide in the diet is negligible compared to the whack of goodness you’ll get when you follow #1 above. When health bloggers or food producers market something based on the healthfulness of the ‘natural’ sugar, it is pure embellishment. 6 meedjol dates and a banana does not make a smoothie sugar free.
  6. Coconut oil – this is a favourite of Sarah Wilson’s: a teaspoon of extra virgin coconut oil can kill a craving in its tracks. If we head to the literature to find any peer reviewed papers on the topic (for what it’s worth, there is a LOT of research published by the Coconut Research Center), there isn’t a lot to definitively tell us that it will cut cravings. That said, there is some research has found that people who include more coconut oil in their diet (compared to other types of fat) have reduced food intake overall, particularly in the subsequent meals. Like most things, you have nothing to lose by trying it.
  7. Cocoa – chocolate is long associated with cravings, though right now, consumption of chocolate may well increase the cravings rather than stamp them out. It’s also not exactly useful if you’re trying to focus on reducing your intake of junk food! That said, chocolate is known for its cognitive and mood enhancing benefits. So how about some unsweetened cocoa (or cacao) in hot water with some milk to deliver the chocolate taste you are after. Add a touch of stevia if you wish. You could also do this cold with almond milk and ice – and add 1 tablespoon of psyllium husk or gelatin in there for some additional fibre or protein. If chocolate is what you’re after – go for the darkest that you can stand. Many people find they stop at 1-2 pieces of 90% chocolate instead of the 1-2 rows consumed of the 70%.
  8. Anything that lowers your blood sugar response to a meal is going to positively impact your cravings. The steep rise and fall of your blood sugar in response to a meal causes alarm bells to start going off in your brain. The body runs a tight ship and prefers when all systems are in homeostasis. Low blood sugar causes a release in stress hormones which tell your liver to dump glucose into the bloodstream, and create cravings so you can re-establish blood sugar to within a normal range. Including cinnamon can reduces glucose response after a meal (in amounts of 6g) and affects insulin response. Stabilising blood sugar is going to help reduce cravings. Sprinkle this gold dust on your breakfast, with your teaspoon of coconut oil, in your cocoa drink etc.
  9. Glutamine – can enhance secretion of GLP-1, a hormone which promotes insulin release that helps increase satiety and dampen appetite – this is only seen in some people however, suggesting there is individual variation of its effects. The flipside of this is that the insulin-releasing effects may override any satiety benefits, increasing hunger (and subsequent meal size) at the next meal. However, in practice this is a tool that many clinicians (myself included) have found useful for some (but not all) clients. The presence of glutamine in the bloodstream is associated with improved insulin sensitivity in healthy people. In addition to this, glutamine has been found to be beneficial for improving intestinal permeability and tight junction protein expression in the gut, being one of the most abundant amino acids in the body. If your cravings are related to gut dysbiosis then it could be useful from this perspective. In addition, it functions as part of neurotransmitter production. Taking L Glutamine by putting it under the tongue as a craving hits (1-3,000mg) may just work for you.
  10. Magnesium is a nutrient that is involved in over 250 processes in our body, and particularly when we are under stress, it is put under the pump. Sugar (or specifically) chocolate craving is often linked to a deficiency to magnesium, but that isn’t conclusive. At any rate, magnesium is perfectly safe to take, and as our food supply is relatively low in magnesium, looking for a supplement that is a magnesium glycinate, citrate or chelated with amino acids may be useful, at amounts of around 300-400mg elemental magnesium.
  11. Chromium is another supplement that some people have found useful for stopping cravings – research has found a reduction in carbohydrate cravings, food intake and an increase in satiety when supplementing with chromium…however this is in the laboratory using mice. There’s nothing definitive in the research to support using it for people who already have adequate amounts of this mineral. That said (as with anything), it’s individual – I know many clients who swear by using Chromium supplements when a craving hits. The only way to know if it works for you is to try it, by taking 1000mg chromium in two doses in meals that contain carbohydrate (due to its suggested benefits at reducing blood sugar response to carbohydrate meals)..
  12. Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are three amino acids that act as nutrient signallers which may help reduce food intake . Leucine (one of the BCAAs) activates mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) which is required for our brain to respond to leptin (a hormone that tells our body when we have had enough food). BCAAs are involved with hormone release in both the gastrointestinal tract and in fat deposits. BCAAs and dietary protein enhanced glucagon like peptide-1 (GLP-1) release and reduced the expression of genes required for synthesis and adsorption of fatty acids in a human intestinal cell line (NCI-H716), suggesting an intestinal mechanism for the beneficial effect of BCAAs. Those that have successfully used BCAAs suggest 5g in the AM and every few hours while you’re adjusting your diet back to baseline awesomeness.
  13. 5htp: 300-500mg taken with a meal to increase satiety of the meal – studies have found a reduced food intake (particularly carbohydrate). Studies conducted have focused on people who have reduced availability of tryptophan in the brain (a precursor to 5htp). Increasing 5htp increases tryptophan and therefore serotonin production, reducing cravings and overall food intake. (Don’t use if you are currently on antidepressants without clearance from your doctor.)
  14. Exercise. A no brainer, really, but research has found this to be super effective for reducing cravings. In fact, any activity done while in the midst of a craving will take your mind off it. So when a craving hits, doing something active for 10-15 minutes can reduce your desire for something sweet. Go for a powerwalk, shoot some hoops, do some hill sprints…
  15. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep! It’s hard this time of year with longer days and opportunities to take advantage of summer (when it shows up…) Sleep restriction enhances activity in brain regions involved in reward in response to energy dense, nutrient-void food (think: lollies, chips, chocolate), suggesting heightened sensitivity to rewarding properties of food. This can lead to increased cravings. If you are burning the candle at both ends and not yet back to your regular 7-8 hours sleep per night, then nailing this will go a long way to helping curb that sugar demon.
  16. Meditation: decentring – viewing your thoughts as separate from yourself – has been found to help reduce food cravings and want for unhealthy food items. Mindfulness practice is also useful for not only reduced cravings, but for reduced emotional eating, body image concerns. It doesn’t require a 90 minute class three times a week (though there’s nothing wrong with that!) Headspace, Calm or Buddhify are three smart phone applications which may help you get going and provide guided sessions of between 2-20 minutes long. It’s consistency and frequency that makes a difference (like any habit).
  17. Clay modelling to reduce cravings: yep. Researchers found that visual imagery plays a key role in reducing craving. Participants who worked for 10 minutes constructing shapes from plastacine had reduced cravings for chocolate compared to people who were left to their own thoughts or who were given a written task.
  18. Your gut bacteria can influence your cravings. There is indirect evidence for a connection between cravings and the type of bacteria lurking in your gut. For example, people who enjoy and crave chocolate have different microbial metabolites (i.e. bacteria by-products) in their urine than “chocolate indifferent” individuals, despite eating identical diets. In addition, gut bacteria can influence the production of our ‘feel good’ and motivation hormones (serotonin and dopamine), thereby influence food decision-making based on our mood. Finally treating mice with a probiotic reduced hunger-inducing hormones and food intake. Action points here? Yes, you could start with a probiotic, particularly when you’re in the thick of it all, as this will help ensure there are beneficial bacterial strains present in your gut. However, for ongoing gut health, the regular addition of probiotic and prebiotics through food will help you maintain a healthy gut microbiome. Therefore:
  • Include fermented vegetables into 1-2 meals daily, working up to 1-2 tablespoons at a time.
  • The addition of unsweetened yoghurt (dairy or coconut) as part of your everyday diet (as it contains beneficial bacteria).
  • Kombucha, at around 100-150ml per day (check the back of the label to ensure a lower sugar variety).
  • Water, milk or coconut kefir, start with around 100ml per day.
  • Raw apple cider vinegar in water – start with 1 tsp in a small amount of water, working up to 1 tablespoon. This will help stimulate stomach acid when taken prior to meals, helping you digest your food properly, and delaying gastric emptying, so your glucose response to the meal will be slower too.
  • Vegetables, in abundance, to include fibres that feed your gut bacteria.

(As a side note, any change to your gut environment can result in unintended (and unwanted) changes to your digestive tract! If you’re new to the fermented foods and/or probiotics, then start small and work your way up. If you end up spending way more time in the bathroom than you wanted, reduce back further. Consider yourself warned.)

You won’t need to do all of these – but I think #1-5, #14, #15, #16 and #18 would completely diminish that sugar demon so you can get back to feeling awesome.

cravings

Grab that cupcake and bin it immediately. Underneath something that will stop you from retrieving it later on. (PC: SamadiMD.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gout: what you need to know and 7 things you can do about it.

  1. Gout is an auto-inflammatory disease caused by a disorder in purine metabolism and the resulted chronic elevation of blood (serum) uric acid (i.e., hyperuricemia)
  2. Men have a higher risk of gout at a lower given blood level of uric acid, and at a lower age than women – generally 10 years earlier.
  3. Women who go through early menopause, or have estrogen deficiency are at higher risk than women who progress through menopause at a normal age, due to oestrogen’s role in increasing uric acid excretion.
  4. Insulin resistance increases risk of gout, as insulin reduces uric acid secretion. The relationship between insulin resistance and gout is more pronounced in women than in men.
  5. There is a bi-directional relationship between high blood pressure and gout: ie if you have high blood pressure, your risk of gout goes up (independent of diuretic medication that is taken), and if you have gout, your risk of developing high blood pressure also increases. High blood pressure can result in damage to kidney and a reduction in uric acid excretion, and the inflammation associated with gout can stiffen and damage arterial walls, and reduces production of nitric oxide – which helps widen arteries.
  6. Genetics play a role in determining risk associated with gout – and people with a particular genetic profile (such as those of European descent with the SNP sequence SLC2A9 as an example) have an increased risk, as do those with ABCG2 rs2231142. However, as with any genetic risk factor, lifestyle determines if these genes are switched on or off, so while this information could be useful (and more people are starting to find out their genetic profile and determine what it means for their health), it is your lifestyle habits predominately regulate overall risk
  7. Triglycerides increase in the bloodstream when people overeat refined carbohydrate foods, and recent research suggests a reduction in serum uric acid occurs when triglycerides decrease.
  8. Alcohol intake is associated with an increased risk of gout – beer more so than wine.
  9. Overall fructose load in the diet is the only type of carbohydrate that is known to increase uric acid levels, potentially because when metabolised, it depletes phosphate and therefore doesn’t help produce ATP (energy) in the body and instead increases uric acid production. Fructose from processed food (and particularly sugary sweetened beverages) can elevate insulin levels and increase risk of insulin resistance. There may be a genetic element to this also, with people who have polymorphisms in SLCA9 and ABCG2 genes responding unfavourably to a load of fructose.
  10. A large cross sectional survey found that people following a vegan diet had the highest serum uric acid concentrations compared to fish eaters, meat eaters and vegetarians, independent of smoking status or alcohol intake.
  11. While seafood is often cautioned against for people who experience gout due to its purine content, a number of studies have failed to find a relationship between seafood intake and serum uric acid levels. Those that have found a relationship may not have adjusted for body mass index (BMI), which can confound the relationship as it did in this study. Indeed, those populations who are at greater risk today (such as Maori and Pacific among New Zealand population) enjoyed a traditional diet of predominantly seafood, vegetation, tubers and gout was non-existent.

What to do?

  1. Look after your gut. Bacteroides caccae and Bacteroides xylanisolvens are increased, and Faecalibacterium prausnitzii and Bifidobacterium pseudocatenulatum depleted in the gut of people who experience gout, suggesting a strong correlation with the presence of gout. F prausnitzii is one of the most abundant bacterium in the gut of a healthy individual, helping produce short chain fatty acids butyrate, which is fuel for our gut bacteria, and the provision of B pseudocatenulatum improves markers of gut wall integrity. So these are pretty important! While this doesn’t necessarily mean that the provision of certain bacteria through probiotics will reduce gout attacks, it does suggest that inflammatory processes of the gut play a role in the presentation of gout and provides further evidence of the importance of a diverse population of bacteria in the gut for overall health.
  2. Supplementing with 1500mg vitamin C reduces serum uric acid and its antioxidant functions may also help kidney function by reducing inflammation.
  3. Like your coffee? You don’t have to go without if you have gout and in fact, 4-5 cups per day have found to decrease serum uric acid that isn’t seen with green or black tea, or total caffeine intake. Decaffeinated coffee has afforded similar benefits, leading investigators to suggest the phenol content (phytochemicals) might increase insulin sensitivity and decrease serum insulin, as discussed above insulin levels have a positive correlation with uric acid due to decreased renal excretion. Furthermore, xanthines, either in caffeine or in coffee itself, could inhibit xanthine oxidase – an enzyme that increases reactive oxygen species (and inflammation).
  4. Magnesium intake is associated with a decreased serum uric acid level in males, and marginal intakes is associated with higher levels of markers in the body indicative of inflammation. Magnesium is low in soil which makes dietary sources of the micronutrient not as high as they once were, therefore supplementing with magnesium of 300-600mg/day (depending on bowel tolerance) is likely a good idea. (To be honest, I’m a big fan of magnesium supplementation for pretty much anyone male or female, given it’s a co-factor in over 300 processes in the body).
  5. Tart cherry extract – not just useful for sleep – is found to reduce the prevalence of gout flare ups in cross sectional studies, potentially due to the presence of polyphenols including anthocyanins, and vitamin C found in the fruit, which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant affects.
  6. The consumption of low fat dairy products is linked to a lower risk of gout in larger population studies.*
  7. Anecdotally (as in, I didn’t find any study on pubmed to support this), baking soda is used to increase pH level of the blood (¼ teaspoon in water), thus making uric acid in the blood able to be excreted. If you know of any studies around this that I’ve missed, let me know!)

The take-home?

While a low purine diet is often recommended as a dietary prescription for people with gout, many purine-containing foods (such as seafood and vegetables) do not contribute to hyperuricemia or gout and may in fact be protective. The effects of red meat consumption on serum acid levels are arguably hard to disentangle from other elements of the modern dietary pattern, and are often in conjunction with higher alcohol intake, lower fruit and vegetable consumption and higher fast-food intake – all contributors to inflammation in the body. In addition, the agricultural practices of the cattle industry in countries such as the US where many of the epidemiological studies that associate red meat with poor health (including higher serum uric acid levels) include the use of antibiotics, poor farming practices and animals that are grain and not grass fed, altering the fatty acid profile of the meat to be higher in omega 6, pro-inflammatory fats. Furthermore, processed and fresh meat is often grouped together – thus a steak is viewed the same as a hamburger from a fast-food outlet – the latter often being in the company of a bun, fries, mayonnaise made with industrial seed oils and a sugar sweetened beverage – the adverse effects which many, myself included, argue cannot be adjusted away by a statistician when determining risk.

*I don’t think you need to start consuming low fat dairy if right now you’re enjoying the benefits of full-fat dairy in the context of an awesome diet. I think this could well be indicative of overall lifestyle patterns. I’d be surprised if there were studies showing that risk of gout is increased in a diet that is whole food, minimally processed, an abundance of vegetables that also incorporated full-fat dairy products.

 

10 ways to naturally reduce your cholesterol-related risk and save yourself $8.00

I was at the supermarket yesterday and just happened to be taking a picture of an iced coffee drink when someone came beside me to grab a couple for themselves and put them in their trolley alongside a pottle of Flora ProActiv margarine.

Heinous drink containing 75g sugar on the left, and overpriced margarine on the right. JICYWW.

Heinous drink containing 75g sugar on the left, and overpriced margarine on the right. JICYWW.

There’s a disconnect right there.

These margarines are not only ridiculously expensive and taste terrible (I suppose that’s the nature of margarine anyway), but consuming this spread in an effort to reduce cholesterol levels is totally misguided. Don’t get me wrong. They work. In fact, a good friend of mine did her Master’s project at the same time as I did to show their effect at lowering LDL cholesterol in a clinical trial. There have been more than a handful of randomised controlled trials that show plant sterols can inhibit cholesterol absorption and reduce LDL cholesterol.

The end goal, however, shouldn’t be about reducing your LDL cholesterol levels. You’re probably down with that anyway given you’re reading my blog. The end goal is about reducing your overall health risk, and these margarines have not been shown to do this, despite the Heart Foundation tick and the Health Star Rating. In fact, for a substantial proportion of the population, a lower cholesterol level increases the risk of heart disease (for more information, read this excellent blog post by Zoe Harcombe)

Interestingly, even the American Heart Association released a statement saying the use of sterol and stanol esters should be reserved for adults requiring LDL cholesterol lowering because of hypercholesterolemia, or as secondary prevention after an atherosclerotic event – and these have yet to be updated.

If you want the real benefits of cholesterol lowering foods, eat your plant sterols in the form that nature intended (i.e. plants), not a pharmaceutical company

Anyways.

Here are 10 ways to naturally reduce your risk related to cholesterol and save yourself $8.00

  1. Eat more vegetable fibre. Fibre is the ‘f’ word that is super important but doesn’t receive nearly as much press as the other ‘f’ word (fat). Current recommendations are 28g for females, and 34g for males and we are currently consuming an average of 20g per day. Fibre comes in a few different forms and while soluble fibre has been found to lower cholesterol absorption – this is not the most important aspect to my mind. A few people (who may have a genetic defect that makes them hyperabsorb fibre, or have a defect on their LDL cholesterol recpetors which limits their cholesterol uptake and removal) would benefit from this in particular. Moreso, eating more plant based fibre shifts us back to an eating pattern that, as Eaton & Cordain point out, we consumed for over 99% of human evolution. And while estimations of fibre intake of Hunter Gatherers vary (as pointed out by Steve in this excellent blog post), the point is: we don’t eat enough of these plant-based foods and we need to eat more AND more from the sources of foods which are as close to their natural form as they can be. You’ve heard of the 5 a day campaign? I say we should aim for 9 – and mostly vegetables. This is particularly true if you do have underlying inflammation that is driving up your cholesterol level. There different types of fibre and soluble fibre is known to absorb cholesterol and remove it from food you eat and your bloodstream. This level of detail is certainly useful if you have a genetic predisposition towards a high cholesterol level which places you at risk (i.e. familial hypercholesterolemia). However, to keep it brief: if you’re currently barely managing three serves of vegetables a day – work on increasing vegetables in general. Natural sources of fibre from plants will deliver soluble and insoluble fibre, along with resistant starch. This is a good place to start.
  2. Ditch processed food. Sounds dramatic I know – and it’s not realistic to ‘never eat anything in a packet’. However if most of your daily calories come with a nutrient information panel and an ingredient list, then you seriously need to reconsider what you are putting into your body. Processed food is devoid of nutrients in the forms your body requires, contains additives and preservatives, some of which have a dubious health profile and takes very little energy to digest. This leads to peaks and troughs in your blood sugar levels, poor appetite control and the potential to overeat.
  3. Ditch sugar. No surprises here. Sugar not only increases your risk of metabolic syndrome that can result in type 2 diabetes and increased cardiovascular disease risk, it drives almost all inflammatory pathways in the body. Thankfully though, if you try hard to stick to #2 above, you’ll do this by default. Do note though, minimising sugar includes all forms of sugar – including the ‘natural’ forms. If you’re unsure of what a sugar is, print out this PDF which tells you the 56 different names to burn into your brain for your supermarket shop.
  4. Lose weight. Or, more specifically, lose body fat. Being obese is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, neurological conditions and some cancers. Yes there are certainly limitations with how we define ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’, but you don’t have to rely on tools to establish whether or not you need to lose some additional fat around the middle. You know this yourself.
  5. Increase your intake of omega 3 fatty acid rich foods (think salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines) and consider an omega 3 supplement if you don’t eat fish. I know – you’re thinking ‘what about plant-based sources’? truth is, these don’t contain the type of long chain fatty acids that are most beneficial for reducing risk of chronic disease, and their conversion rate into those forms is quite poor. Eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) is the omega 3 that is involved in reducing inflammation, and if you do have high cholesterol and inflammation, then a supplement such as this Nordic Naturals could be worthwhile taking. While a very recent clinical trial failed to show improvements in total cholesterol with the addition of an omega 3 supplementation, it did show a reduction in fasting blood sugar, triglyceride levels and c-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation in the body). And as I said, your cholesterol level might not be the most important metabolic marker to focus on anyway. Vegetarians especially would benefit from supplementation, and an algae supplement would provide a similar benefit.
  6. Get out in the sun…. and get your vitamin D levels checked. There is an association between low vitamin D and poor metabolic health – studies have shown a link between high sunlight hours and lower cholesterol levels at a population levels. This is due to the exposure of skin to the UVB rays that uses cholesterol to create vitamin D. However, a large percentage of New Zealander’s are below adequate levels. For best and safe practice, sun exposure, minus the burning, for 10-15 minutes where parts of your skin not often seen by the sun (for maximum absorption) are exposed (think: armpits, abdomen – unless you’re young and gorgeous) is best. The thing is, though, the sun doesn’t hit the earth at the right latitude to get any of those rays to produce vitamin D in winter, so we can be lagging even more coming into spring. So supplementation could well be required. In addition to the mechanism above, studies (like this one) have shown that higher dose vitamin D supplementation can lower cholesterol and inflammatory markers in women. If supplementing, choose a supplement that also includes vitamin K2 to help vitamin D’s absorption such as this Clinicians one.
  7. Alpha-lipoic acid (along with other antioxidants vitamin C or E) can provide antioxidant support to help reduce your overall health risk associated with cholesterol levels (i.e. reduce inflammation and oxidative species) by increasing the activity of your body’s antioxidant defences. If you’re wanting to spend your money on actively lowering your cholesterol, these relatively safe supplement options are a better idea than margarine.
  8. Your thyroid, your gut, your genetic profile can all influence your cholesterol profile. If your cholesterol is more than a bit elevated, consider investigating other reasons for this. FYI it’s now easier to get your LDL cholesterol tested, rather than calculated, including those which are more atherogenic, such as VLDL, oxidised LDL if you do have concerns. You can work with a practitioner to do this.
  9. Exercise. Free and long known to improve metabolic health. The arguments for or against the benefit of exercise for losing weight are irrelevant. Mood, lean muscle mass, cardiovascular fitness and general all around awesomeness will increase. It doesn’t mean you have to slog it out in the gym. Body weight exercises and some short, sharp, intense exercise a couple of times a week – combined with walking and general movement as much as you can – is most effective for health and wellbeing. If you like to track your details then get a Fitbit or a Garmin or similar. If you obsess over numbers then don’t.
  10. Stress less. Sleep more. And if you are losing weight, and doing all of the above, wait for your weight to stabilise before worrying too much about your cholesterol levels, which can be elevated during this time.

 

Body weight exercises from the 7min workout - not a bad place to start. (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/09/the-scientific-7-minute-workout/)

Body weight exercises from the 7min workout – not a bad place to start. (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/09/the-scientific-7-minute-workout/)

Should you be taking a supplement?

Probably*.

I know. I am not even going to write ‘it depends.’ I never used to think like this. In fact, I think you could describe me as being adamantly opposed to supplementation. I would look quite suspiciously on nutritionists who would recommend a raft of additional pills and potions for their clients (from their supplement range). I was a big believer in the idea that you could get everything you needed from food and supplements were for the ‘worried well’, the term used to describe our biggest users of supplements in New Zealand: young, middle-class, female.

That’s changed. While I think you SHOULD be able to get everything we need from food, I no longer think that you CAN get everything from food. A few examples:

For many years now it is well known that micronutrients essential for antioxidant, neurotransmitter and musculoskeletal processes in the body are depleted in our food supply. Iodine is the obvious one. Essential for metabolism and the production of thyroid hormones, the removal of iodophers as cleaning agents from our dairy industry in the 1950s (which was our main source of iodine) and the naturally low level of iodine in our soil has resulted in mild iodine deficiency. Associate Professor Skeaff at Otago (one of my favourite lecturers) completed her PhD in this area and her research suggests that this deficiency, whilst not resulting in goitre, could lead to cognitive problems in children due to low iodine status in mothers during pregnancy. The foetus relies on the mothers thyroid hormones for normal growth and neural development and hypothyroxinaemia (i.e., low maternal fT4) results in damage to the developing brain, which is further aggravated by hypothyroidism in the foetus. This problem has (in recent decades) been further exacerbated by the removal of our main source of iodine (table salt) due to the public health messages around salt and hypertension. Now I’m not suggesting that we need to supplement with iodine in this instance, actually, as the inclusion of kelp, nori wakame and other sea vegetables (and some seafood), nor do we need to go back to pouring anti-caking agent on our food. However, this is a good example of a nutrient that is not readily available ‘in a balanced diet’ for most people.

Another obvious nutrient is vitamin D. While the majority of vitamin D is produced through exposure to the sun, it’s well accepted that this is nigh on impossible for anyone in New Zealand in winter (for the sun doesn’t hit the earth at the right angle for the production of UVB rays). Further, the ‘slip slop slap’ message has led many people to completely avoid the sunlight when it is available for the necessary production. Vitamin D3 is added to a lot of foods by way of fortification in New Zealand, however most foods it is added to are not nutrient dense, whole foods that I would recommend my clients consume (cereal bars, dairy desserts, food drinks, meal replacements, margarines, skim and modified milks, soy milks and yoghurt). Further, while the recommended amount of vitamin D is 5ug/day through the diet, this is based on the role that vitamin D plays in bone metabolism, and is not accounting for the myriad of other roles it has in neurotransmitter production, brain, gut and heart health and overall wellbeing. In New Zealand we have over 30% of adults who have levels below 50 mmol/L as measured in the blood. That’s a significant portion of the population who are considered ‘sub optimal’ yet not deficient. If you have sub-optimal vitamin D status, and are a person who is grappling with a low mood, weight gain and the normal stressors of everyday life, then boosting your vitamin D could be a really good option for you. Vitamin D forms the backbone of our corticosteroid hormones, and when your body is under times of stress (and this is dietary, physical, emotional or environmental stress), the production of our stress hormones increases at the expense of our thyroid or our sex hormones. Call it our evolutionary response to modern life. Why would your body be interested in reproduction (for example) if the immediate problem is one of survival? Further (to all of this), if you are taking a supplement for vitamin D, it’s a good idea to balance it with vitamin K2. This is a vitamin low in our modern food supply (for most of the year – though you can find it in full fat dairy products, egg yolks, fermented foods and in grass fed cows). While 50% of vitamin K2 is produced by our gut bacteria, however the modern diet, the increased exposure to medications, antibiotics and environmental toxins, combined with an overall reduced diversity of bacteria in our gut has undoubtedly reduced our endogenous production of this vitamin (along with impacting on our overall health as we now understand the essential role of our gut in determining overall health.

I could go on with 18 other examples, however your attention may wander, so I’ll move on.

Outside of the food supply, even if someone truly were getting the optimal levels of nutrients as determined by the recommended daily intakes (RDIs), how accurate are these are determining optimal levels of health?? As suggested earlier, some people advocate much higher dietary levels of vitamin D, well above the RDI. The RDIs are determined from clinical trials whereby the micronutrient in question is removed until deficiency symptoms occur, then added back into the intake until the symptoms are corrected and nutrition status is restored. And this is exactly how you want to do it. But this (for a lot of micronutrients) was determined decades ago. Do the same recommendations support the demands of everyday life today? I (along with others) do not think so. Modern life brings with it stressors that can deplete us of nutrients in ways that were probably not even dreamed of when the RDIs were set. Our exposure to  heavy metals, pesticides and other environmental pollutants can impact on our ability to absorb and digest nutrients and may also increase our requirements as a consequence of such exposure. Further, the rate of depletion of the B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and vitamin C are greater due to their role in immune function pathways, which are upregulated when there is this additional burden placed on us through the modern day environment.

Another example of this is an epidemic of zinc deficiency worldwide – and in fact a quarter of New Zealand males are zinc deficient. Zinc – found in pumpkin seeds, seafood, lean meat, eggs, has an important role in our sex and thyroid hormone production, insulin production, immunity, growth, our senses (taste, vision, and smell) and blood clotting (to name a few). Not only is the zinc content of our soil low, chronic stress over time has been shown to deplete plasma zinc and increase plasma levels of copper; an imbalance that contributes to inflammation and with it the health issues that come with that. So, while we may be consuming enough zinc according to the RDIs, there is more to consider than just dietary intake alone.  I really don’t think that it was possible to imagine what life would be like for a lot of people these days, much less account for these in the recommended dietary intakes, even though these were updated close to 10 years ago.

Now, you might not agree that supplementing is necessary, and if someone is in optimal health, with no problems indicative of malabsorption and stressors at a minimum, then I would agree. However, the number of people I see falling into this category are few and far between. Yes, perhaps I may be seeing a skewed portion of the population – after all, they are seeking my help with their energy, digestive, hormonal and weight challenges. Further, they have the necessary resources to invest in my help. However, again, I don’t think this is a valid argument. While my target market as a nutritionist could once be considered the ‘worried well’, this description doesn’t accurately depict my clientele. Worried? Yes. Well? Not so much. Average life span in the general population may be increasing, this is not a reflection of the health of the nation, with the prevalence of allergies, asthma, overweight, cancers, cardiovascular and neurological diseases increasing. All of which require nutrients that aren’t easily obtained through a ‘balanced’ diet (whatever that is).

So…should you be supplementing then? Well, NOT in the absence of an awesome real food, varied diet that also incorporates fermented food, obviously. And… (sorry) it’s NOT as simple as popping a multivitamin, unfortunately. It’s not even that ‘you get what you pay for’ when it comes to supplements – as a hefty price tag doesn’t always reflect biological usefulness in the body which may even lead to a build-up of some nutrients leading to major health problems (as mentioned with zinc and copper). Nutrients that are derived from food sources will always trump a supplement as they are designed by nature to contain these in amounts that work synergistically (together), not antagonistically. There is a lot to consider with supplementation. A standard multi might not be an issue. But it can be.

* My advice is to work with a health practitioner to determine YOUR nutrient needs, as it’s far more complicated than taking a pack of pills in the morning and another at night, and crossing your fingers you’ve covered your bases. While you can take some without the worry of toxicity there are certainly toxicity issues with others. They can then look at the whole picture and not just the food you are or aren’t consuming. That said, most people could probably do with increasing magnesium via a supplement. 

PS If you have even a passing interest in the effects of modern life on our health, check out the Ancestral Health Society of New Zealand – we have a symposium coming up in October in Queenstown!

bottle from somewhere on the interweb. Thank you, random site I've now forgotten.

bottle from somewhere on the interweb. Thank you, random site I’ve now forgotten.

Got a headache?

Ever get a headache?  I would say that most people I talk to have experienced a headache in the last couple of weeks. Indeed, a 2014 telephone survey found that headaches were one of the top five symptoms reported on a weekly basis, with over one-third of those questioned experiencing an episode. Increasingly, it is more than an infrequent occurrence that can be put down to an occasional late night (lack of sleep), being dehydrated or too much alcohol the night before. In fact, I think that headaches have come to the point where we’ve normalised them so much we barely see any reason to pay them much credence. Everyone gets a headache – what’s the point in worrying about it? Nothing ibuprofen can’t fix.

In my opinion, this normalisation of pain is how we’ve addressed (or not) the chronic stress, tiredness, bloating, inability to wake up properly or the slight malaise we might feel on a day to day basis. For a lot of people what I’ve described is just ‘life’. There’s no point complaining because this is what everyone is experiencing so we may as well buck up and get on with it. Like all of the conditions I’ve mentioned above, frequent and recurring headaches impact massively on quality of life. While obviously migraines are a type of pain that would cause more disruption to everyday life, a headache shouldn’t just be dismissed either. It’s a sign that something is out of balance in your life that you should probably address. That said, a closer look at your diet might reveal elements which could be changed or optimised to reduce the likelihood ot these occurring, Specifically, there are nutrients which have been found (in addition to an awesome diet) to be useful for reducing severity and frequency of headaches or migraines occurring. While the jury is out on both omega 3 fatty acids, and vitamin D (with some research suggesting that too much vitamin D may have the opposite effect), there is fairly good evidence to suggest that these may be useful:

Magnesium: in powder form, along with a citric acid or as an amino chelate – up to 600mg per day over three months (this might equate to 2.5g – 5g of powder from a brand such as Bioceuticals Ultraeaze). Studies have shown that many experience a reduction of attacks by up to 41%. Now that is significant.

CoQ 10: not just as part of face cream, in doses of up to 300mg/day (which is fairly substantial) has been found to reduce frequency of attacks and also symptoms of nausea associated with headaches.

Riboflavin: this amino acid in doses of 400mg/day over four months have also been found to reduce severity and frequency of attacks – people of European background are more likely to respond than others due to genetic differences.

A well balanced whole food/paleo diet contain substantial amounts of these nutrients. Magnesium is abundant in vegetables, animal products and fruit; CoQ 10 present in salmon, sardines, red meat, nuts such as almonds, and seeds such as sesame   seeds; and riboflavin is found in substantial amounts in cheese, beef, pork, eggs and oily fish. However if you are consuming such a diet and not experiencing relief, it might be worth considering supplementing in addition to this.

Now people who experience migraines are likely to know which foods trigger an attack. A well studied group of amino acids have been found to trigger headaches and migraines in susceptible people: tyramines, histidines and arginine.

  1. Tyramines: are found in fermented foods (such as sauerkraut, kimchi), blue cheese, broad beans, beer and sulphate-containing wine, dried fruit, grapes, cured meat and fish (not a complete list). Some people lack the enzymes to inactivate these and it can lead to a build up in the blood, causing temporary nausea, increase in blood pressure, sweating and migraine headaches. Tyramines are found in fermented foods (sauerkraut, kimchi, yoghurts), blue cheese, broad beans, in beer, wine that contains sulphates, other sulphur-based dried fruits, grapes, cured meat and fish.
  2. Histamines: are a result of the conversion of an amino acid histidine by two enzymes diamine oxidase and histamine N-methltransferase. People who have low levels of these enzymes have a build up of histamine in the body as they are unable to metabolise it. Histamines, like Tyramines are found in fermented based foods, along with all alcohol and vinegars. Other sources are fruits such as strawberries, avocado, and bananas, vegetables (tomatoes, spinach, eggplant) and nuts including walnuts, peanuts and cashews.
  3. Arginine: is an amino acid that causes vasodilation of the blood vessels by increasing the amount of nitric oxide in the blood. Great if you’re an athlete wanting to go at higher intensities, not so great if it causes pain through vasodilation and expansion of the cranial blood vessels. Avoiding these foods can minimise this, and nuts and chocolate have the highest amount of arginine in them. (As a side note, people who might experience break outs in the herpes virus have been recommended minimising these foods in their diet).

Not all of these groups of food are going to affect everyone, and not all foods within the different groups are going to trigger a migraine or tension headache, but it’s a process of figuring out which ones do by eliminating them from the diet for one to three months to see if there is respite from frequent migraine headaches, then reintroducing them (as you would any food).

There are many things which affect frequency and severity of headaches and migraines. Like other stressors, the effects of these (or anything) that might trigger an attack can be made worse depending on overall stress load. If you are lacking in sleep, relying on sugar or coffee for energy, have a lot on your plate at work, drinking too much alcohol (etc) then you may well experience more of an effect compared to other times where you feel a little more on top of things. So while you can remove certain foods from your diet and optimise others to minimise attacks in the short term, looking at the root cause of what is causing the headaches is clearly the best option long term.

Antioxidant use and the athlete: should you or shouldn’t you?

There is nothing more disappointing than doing everything you possibly can to prepare for an event… and then the week before you wake up with a scratchy throat. Panic sets in. WTF?! You’ve been diligent about rugging up before heading out for your training. You’ve gotten extremely adept at opening the fridge in your staffroom with your elbow, and the unexpected benefit of not touching the escalator handrail is that your balance has improved exponentially. All of that, along with religiously popping two of those yummy fizzy orange lollies masquerading as vitamin C tablets daily to fight those pesky free radicals that your body is subjected to week in, week out as part of your normal training load. Yet this feels like the beginning of a worrying week pre-race that could derail what was looking like a PB race.

The problem with being an athlete is that you’re constantly teetering on the edge of becoming sick – when you add training on top of an already busy life load, you run the risk of becoming run down and, for some, chronically so. It must be said, though, that athletes are often the least likely to come down with the winter ills. Regular training affords us positive adaptations in cardiovascular, skeletal muscle and respiratory systems, which benefit both everyday wellbeing and prevent against metabolic diseases.  However, despite the undeniable health benefits, exercise increases the production of free radicals in your body, and in excess these may promote increased oxidative stress and damage in the DNA structure. This leads to impaired skeletal tissue function and increased muscle pain, affecting our ability to train and thus perform. Not to mention looking about 81 years old when you’re barely 50. Hmm… there are definite downsides to training. In order to combat this, many athletes and sports professionals have a regular regime of antioxidant supplements (such as vitamin C) they take daily as part of their overall training strategy.

While there can be benefits with taking additional supplements, there are questions around the usefulness of these for athletes. Recently it’s been established that, contrary to strengthening our resilience against illness, we may be doing ourselves a disservice, as physical activity itself causes adaptations in the tissue and increases the expression of receptors that are responsible for producing our internal antioxidant defenses. This stress is important to help us become stronger for the next session, and thus become fitter (termed mitohormesis.)  A recent study investigating this concept also found that regardless of training status, supplementing with antioxidants blunted the ability of exercise to increase insulin sensitivity, and the release of adinopectin, a hormone with a role in blood glucose regulation and fatty acid oxidation.

Does this mean, then, that you should throw away your vitamin C tablets? Actually – to my mind, no. There is a time and place for additional antioxidant supplementation and a blanket approach, taken as an insurance to ward off ills is not the answer. In the literature, there are questions around the use of antioxidants and, like a lot of scientific trials involving humans, this stems from methodological differences, alongside individual differences which garner different results. Many studies didn’t control for overall diet, the training status of the participants differed, along with the definition of ‘endurance’ – I know that many people would view a definition of ‘training 4-5 x per week for up to 60 minutes at a time’ does not an endurance athlete make. The active ingredient in the supplement along with the way it is formulated can also affect the absorption and thus its effectiveness.

There are times in your training cycle where it’s beneficial to expose your body to the adaptive effects of training – as you’re building up your base your body is undergoing many of these, learning to go longer, lift heavier, potentially go faster. This is not the time to take the supplement, as your main goal is to become a better athlete through these changes. In the lead up to the race, however, the adaptive phase is done. Your main concern is getting to the start line in as good a condition as possible. Consider taking a supplement in the week leading up to the event to protect your antioixidant status (which will undoubtedly give you a psychological boost). In addition, it appears that particularly after an event, antioxidant status is reduced (which makes sense, given the stress that racing places on the body) and ensuring a nutrient rich diet with additional supplementation makes sense in the few days afterwards. There are no guidelines around dosage in the literature, but a supplement in a chelated form (along with an amino acid, perhaps powdered form) will help absorption of a vitamin C supplement.

Of course, throughout your normal diet, however, there is much more benefit to take on board these nutrients in their natural state. Vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that work as antioxidants in the body work in a synergy that can’t be emulated by a pill. While there is increasing interest in the use of ‘functional foods’ such as gogi berries, black tart cherry juice, beetroot juice and the like, your antioxidant status is enhanced through consuming an abundance of nutrient-dense foods that provide this synergy, and there are plenty of studies to show this.

In addition to the numerous vegetable and fruit sources of these constituents, animal based foods are more nutrient dense with regards to cofactors responsible for decreasing oxidative stress in the body. Free range eggs, naturally occurring fats, fish, meat, all contribute either antioxidants themselves (such as co-enzyme q 10 and glycine) or provide the proteins necessary to build our body’s own antioxidant defense. It goes without saying that removing seed oils and processed foods which contribute to the omega-6 load of our diet (thus promoting inflammation) is an important factor here.

Of course, as an athlete, diet is just one factor that contributes to your ability to fight off infection. If you’re not getting adequate sleep, ensuring your training sessions include enough recovery to enable your body to adapt to the training stress, and allowing some downtime in every day life outside of training to just relax, then your risk of coming down with a cold or flu at this time of year will exponentially increase. That said and done, if you do feel the beginnings of a scratchy throat? One of the best things you can do is take a tonic. Check out this below that Chris Kresser talked about. Sounds potent, but it does the trick for him. Many people swear by ginger, manuka honey and lemon to help ward off colds, and ginger is well known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties as is manuka honey.

(over to Chris for the last word…)

“Juice 1 kg pf ginger in a juicer. And then you put 3 to 4 tablespoons of ginger in a cup with the juice of one lemon and some honey, like a couple of teaspoons or a tablespoon of honey, and you sip on that all day.  You’ll probably need to make it a couple more times throughout the day, but you just keep sipping it throughout the whole day.  It’s really intense, that much fresh ginger juice.  You’ll really understand when people say that ginger is spicy when you drink that!  You sprinkle a tiny bit of cayenne pepper, like a pinch of it, too.  That really helps a lot.  The fresh ginger is antiviral, and it actually prevents the adhesion of the virus to the upper respiratory mucosa.  If you do it right at the beginning of getting sick, it can really prevent you from getting sick at all. Taken 3-5 times a day. That’s enough for two people over 1.5 days, might make 2-3 batches.”