Leaf Me Alone, Meathead.

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By popular demand, this is a post about plant-based proteins. Before you freak out, I’m not “anti-meat,” nor am I vegan (not that there’s anything wrong with eating vegan). In fact, just this morning I made some chorizo breakfast burritos that were the bomb.com. However, we simply can’t deny the literature that supports the benefits of a more whole-food-plant-based eating style with regard to health promotion and disease prevention. So here it goes.

First of all, an undying myth exists surrounding a “meat-free” eating style. This myth entails someone dreaming up the idea that we have to have “complimentary proteins” to obtain all the amino acids (teensy protein-building blocks) we need. The need to combine certain foods to obtain adequate protein is simply NOT TRUE. I don’t feel like explaining this, especially since a respected colleague, Jeff Novick, MS, RD, has already done this quite nicely; if you’d like, you can read about it here.

Most people, including and especially athletic individuals, seem to think that we HAVE TO HAVE MEAT to obtain enough protein to get those killer muscles. Again, not true. A whole-food, plant-based diet can provide more than enough protein to fuel even the most “athleticky” althletes around. I will give you some numbers in a second regarding protein, carbohydrate, fiber content, and all that jazz. But first, I think it’s valuable for you to see first hand some stories about some real-life athletes who [gasp!] never eat meat. Read about a few of them here. There are plenty more other stories about vegan athletes out there as well. It’s some pretty legit stuff. Not to mention that gorillas are pretty buff and totally vegan too…

Often, tofu becomes one of the first foods that comes to many minds when one mentions plant-based proteins. While I don’t have a beef against tofu (see what I did there), I don’t really like it much. Some people live by the stuff. I don’t like tofu for two reasons: (1) I haven’t eaten anything containing tofu that made me go “wow, that’s good;” and (2) I am unable to form a professional opinion on the benefits vs. harm regarding soy based on current research.

About half the peer-reviewed literature touts soy as a fabulous way to obtain phytoestrogens and isoflavones, which are phytochemicals (phyto=plant) that have been shown to improve risk for heart disease, cancer, and which can help manage menopausal symptoms. The other half of the peer-reviewed literature exposes the fact that phytoestrogens can potentially disrupt the endocrine system, posing harm on our thyroid, risk for cancer, etc.

I simply have been unable to form a solid, professional stance on soy due to the fact that the risks seem to equal the benefits. It all depends on the individual, the health of your gut, presence of mutated cells already in your body (which you wouldn’t feel or see), and so many unmanageable variables. Personally, I simply choose to stay away from soy when I can; what you do with soy is up to you based on what I just said. The topic of soy, alone, would take up an entire post or two; so I’m going to leave it at that.

Ok I lied…I still have a few more things to say about soy. What is important for you to realize is that soy is in nearly EVERYTHING we eat, not just that block of tofu at the grocery store. Soy can be in that mysterious ingredient “natural flavoring;” it is also usually found in the ingredient “lecithin.” For a more comprehensive list of how to determine if your food contains soy, look here. Furthermore, fermented soy products (i.e. tempeh, miso, natto, etc.) appear to be a better soy option, as the fermentation process decreases some of the “risky” aspects of soy. Again, the topic of soy deserves an entirely separate post. Stay tuned.

Ok, now for what you probably came here for: which foods are considered plant-based proteins, and how much protein do they contain?

  1. Beans. I know you’re thinking, “shocker!” But hear me out. I feel like beans are underappreciated. And by beans, I’m actually referring to all legumes: lentils, peas, kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, garbanzo beans, and many others. You see, legumes can contain about 15 grams of protein and about 30 grams of carbohydrates per 1 cup (varies depending on specific type – 1 cup of sprouted lentils contains a whopping 20 grams of protein). “What?! [Gasp!] Carbs! We will all die!” Carbs won’t kill you, and carbs from beans are certainaly not going to independently “make you fat.” If you’re trying to gain muscle, you need protein and carbs to physiologically make that happen. The cool thing about legumes, is that they have a pretty decent carb-to-protein ratio; and they have fiber, magnesium, folate, iron, a ton of antioxidants, and a whole bunch of other cool stuff you need in order to be healthy. Here are just a few examples of the five-zillion meal ideas that exist containing legumes.
  2. Nuts and seeds. Although they are high in fat, nuts and seeds are high in super-healthy types of fat that we definitely need (in appropriate amounts of course). A half-cup of whole almonds contains about 15 grams of protein; a half-cup of pecans has about 5 grams of protein; and a half-cup of peanuts has about 19 grams of protein. If we want to get nit-picky, peanuts are actually legumes…but whatever; you get the idea. Nuts and seeds contain so many good nutrients beyond just healthy fats and protein. They contain fiber, calcium, magnesium, iron, B vitamins, and many other nutrients and antioxidants. Just use caution with portion control with nuts/seeds, and be aware of the added salt that many contain. Some of my favorite things to do with nuts (besides just a good ol’ handful) are:
    1. Sliced almonds in my oatmeal w/cinnamon and honey
    2. Sliced apple with natural peanut butter (only ingredients are peanuts and salt if it’s truly a “natural” peanut butter)
    3. Homemade trail mix: a 2 to 1 ratio of whatever nuts you like to dried fruit (no-added-sugar dried fruit)
    4. Sunflower seeds and/or slivered almonds on my leafy salad
    5. Nut crumbs (zap some whole nuts in a food processor until crumbley/powdery) mixed in with whole grain pancake batter for pancakes that are actually nutritionally worthwhile (c’mon – “regular” pancakes are like having birthday cake for breakfast. Seriously…)
  3. Vegetables. We have been so ingrained to think of only meat as our protein sources, that we forget about that which is right in front of us sometimes. Just because a food isn’t “high in protein” doesn’t mean it doesn’t all add up. For example, cooked broccoli contains about 4 grams of protein per 1 cup. One cup of cooked spinach contains about 5 grams of protein. The added bonus of protein from these sources is the too-many-to-list micronutrients and antioxidants they contain. Additionally, think bigger-picture with the vegetable protein concept. For example, you make a soup with spinach, beans, and some other vegetables, such as this one, and you could easily have a hearty amount of protein despite the meat-less-ness.
  4. Whole grains. Yeah I know, “but they contain those ghastly carbs!” Again, I’ll say that you need some carbs to be able to physiologically build muscle. And, whole grains provide us with really valuable phytochemicals that punch our cholesterol in its face and help us poop, to say the least. A 1 cup serving of cooked quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) contains about 8 grams of protein. One slice of my favorite Dave’s Killer Bread contains 5 grams of protein.

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Keep in mind that you may not need quite as much protein as you think; and you certainly can achieve your protein needs without “fake nutrition” (i.e. protein shakes, packaged protein bars, etc.). If you’re a fit, muscle-building athlete, you may need up to of 1.2-1.3 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day. This means, for a 150 lb woman, for example, you might need around 80-90 grams of protein per day. If you are simply a regular person, doing a mediocre amount of exercise (think walking a few miles per week at best), you only need up to 1 gram of protein per kg of body weight.   So, for the same 150 lb woman, this would be around 65-70 grams of protein per day.

It’s also very important to note that calculations for protein needs vary significantly depending on an individual’s activity level, gender, height, weight, age, kidney function, liver function, etc. Too much protein can strain your body in some unnoticeable yet damaging ways. Additionally, it is critical that you drink adequate water, especially if you have a “high” protein intake. If you want a true-to-you protein recommendation, consult your local RDN. Hy-Vee and King Soopers grocery stores have accessible RDNs; most, if not all, hospitals and some gyms do too. You could also ask your doctor for a referral to see an RDN.

Let’s pull it all together in a sample plant-based day and see how we add up with protein. If we are talking about the example above, a 150 lb woman who is an athlete trying to maintain and build muscle, we need no more than about 80-90 grams of protein per day.

Here is a sample day’s eating to give you a better picture: 

  • Breakfast:
    • 1 slice whole grain bread w/ 2 Tbsp natural peanut butter = 9 grams protein, 31 grams carb, 5 grams fiber
    • 1 small apple = 0 protein, 15 grams carb, 4 grams fiber
  • Snack:
    • ¼ cup almonds = 7 grams protein, 7 grams carb, 4 grams fiber
    • 1 small orange = 0 grams protein, 15 grams carb, 4 grams fiber
  • Lunch:
    • Tuscan White Bean Soup (1 cup) = 12 grams protein, 38 grams carb, 8 grams fiber
    • Arugula salad w/2 Tbsp sunflower seeds and veggies = 6 grams protein, 6 grams carb, 4 grams fiber
  • Snack:
    • Lara bar (peanut butter cookie flavor) = 7 grams protein, 23 grams carb, 4 grams fiber
  • Dinner:
    • 2 Baked Falafel Burgers w/ lettuce wraps & tomato = 18 grams protein, 35 grams carb, 10 grams fiber
    • Spinach salad w/2 Tbsp walnuts = 4 grams protein, 3 grams carb, 3 grams fiber
  • Snack:
  • TOTALS:
    • The total daily protein intake for this sample day = 74 grams. Not too shabby given our 80-90 g/day goal. Bear in mind this was a completely vegan sample day. I don’t eat that way, nor do I feel you have to to be healthy. You could swap out any number of items on this menu for more protein. For example, 1 boiled egg chopped up as part of each of those two salads listed for lunch and dinner would add another 14 grams of protein. With that extra bit of egg on the salads, the grand total would have been 88 grams of protein for the day. Easy peasy. Get it – “peasy” Haha…
    • I don’t really ever believe in a “carbs per day” total; carbohydrate needs vary widely from person to person. However, if we are using a 150 lb woman athlete for an example, I think a rough guideline of about 45 grams carb per meal (per day is less relevant) and about 15-20 grams carb per snack would be pretty appropriate.  This sample day gives us a pretty good total per meal and per snack with regard to carbohydrates; and they are all high-fiber, good-quality carbohydrates, which does make a difference physiologically.
    • Total fiber intake was 53 grams. This is a tad on the high side of fiber actually, as the recommended grams of fiber per day for most of us is 25-35 grams per day. With a little creativity, and if you’re open to some animal products, a few adjustments could reduce the fiber a bit while not sacrificing protein or nutrition.

Eat meat or don’t; but try to emphasize plant proteins to the best of your ability and you are more likely to be healthy. Also don’t forget to drink ample water.

It’s bean fun (see what I did again – get it). See you next time!

Just Go on a Diet (Said me Never)

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Recently I saw a patient who is convinced that he lost weight because he read the Wheat Belly Diet book, and because he subsequently stopped eating wheat. While there is nothing harmful necessarily about avoiding wheat if you so choose, there is nothing truly science based that suggests anyone (with the exception of certain medical conditions) would benefit from avoiding wheat.

What this patient did not connect is that prior to avoiding wheat, he had been eating crappy food choices and was sedentary; at the same time that he decided to avoid wheat, he also started walking several miles each week and eating vegetables and fruits. His main reasoning for avoiding wheat was to lose weight and improve his blood glucose levels (he had diabetes). This man successfully improved his health, but it cannot be solely attributed to the avoidance of wheat, as he improved SO MANY other things about his lifestyle. He simply wasn’t convinced at my attempt to explain confounding factors, etc.

I don’t really care if he, or you, or anyone eats wheat. There is nothing special to wheat that can’t be found in other foods/grains. However, the takeaway here (which he refused/failed to realize) is that avoidance of a particular food or food group is not a guaranteed pathway to good health in the absence of an overall lifestyle change that includes plenty of good-quality whole foods (mainly plants) and plenty of physical activity.

Here are some additional points for debate on the same and similar topics:

  • There is an overall lack of peer-reviewed evidence supporting any rationale for avoidance of wheat as a food ingredient with regard to any condition besides food allergy, intolerance, or celiac disease.
  • Misinformation regarding nutrition is rampant in the general public and even sometimes in the medical community (i.e. MDs who decide they have a sudden interest in writing nutrition books, often without any actual nutrition education ever).
  • With or without wheat inclusion, effort should be made to consume consistent amounts of whole grains and/or whole starchy vegetables (including potatoes and corn if desired) as part of meals/snacks (in appropriate amounts) in order to promote good health and steady glycemic control
  • This man also referenced that he has [figuratively] bought stock in the Glycemic Index.  The Glycemic Index (GI), while useful in some ways, is not a clinically appropriate guideline for recommendations to improve health or overall glycemic control. We do not eat “foods” typically, as we eat “meals.”
  • Also, GI does not account for nutritional value of foods; it merely accounts for blood glucose response after ingestion of a single food item (100 g) compared with 100 g of pure glucose. Therefore, many nutrient rich foods would appear to be “less healthy” merely based on their glucose response (or lack thereof). For example, a candy bar would have a lower GI rating than a whole apple, simply based on the fact that the candy bar may contain peanuts; thus lowering the glycemic response. Fat/protein, whether healthy or not so healthy, will lower the glycemic response of carbohydrate-containing foods.
  • There is a benefit of including *small portions* of starchy vegetables such as corn and potatoes in our meals. Potatoes are a potassium-rich food, and they are also a good source of fiber, vitamin B6, copper, etc. Corn contains large amounts of carotenoid antioxidants, especially lutein and zeaxanthin. Corn is also high in B vitamins and fiber. There are plenty of other starchy vegetables with plenty of additional benefits; too many to list.

Here’s the real advice here. Hold on to your britches – I’m about to smack you in the face with some reality:

  • Please stop thinking that a fad diet will magically make you healthy long-term. It won’t. I’ve been doing this (being an RDN) for a long time now, and I have followed several patients for many years watching them try and fail one diet after the next. They just couldn’t “get it” that the fad diets were the problem, not the solution.
  • If you know you won’t be able to eat that way (using whatever rules your fly-by-night diet has you on) forever, then you won’t have results forever. I just can’t wrap my brain around why people can’t understand the simplicity of that concept…
  • Please stop demonizing all starchy foods. I think it is safe to say that we all know white bread and related starches do more harm to us than good. However, some starchy foods are super healthy if you don’t gorge on them.
  • Although sometimes easier said than done, just focus on eating whole foods, mostly plants, without stuffing yourself and move around a lot more. It won’t be fast, and it won’t be magical; but your health will improve if you’re consistent and in it for the long haul.
  • Love yourself enough to feed yourself things that make you feel amazing: plants, lots of water, etc., and beautiful things will happen.

Ciao, my beautiful wheat-eating (or not) friends.

Why You’re Still Fat

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Ok folks, here is forewarning: if you are faint of heart, I recommend you stop reading. I’m going to take on what could be construed as a harsh, insensitive tone for the remainder of today’s post.

Hey! You’re still here! Nice to see you stick around. Now for a bit of tough love…

Reasons why you struggle with weight loss (in no particular order of importance):

  • You are always on some fad diet (paleo today, Atkins tomorrow, something else next week).
  • You drink neon “detox” drinks believing that somehow that magical powder will allow you to bypass the mountain of science dictating that improving eating habits and increasing physical activity pave the way toward losing weight.
  • You skip meals, especially breakfast.
  • You purposely ignore hunger in an effort to lose fat.
  • You drink artificially-sweetened beverages, fruit juice, sweet tea, lemonade, soda, and/or sugary coffee as your main beverages.
  • You drink very little (if any) water.
  • You may exercise, and maybe even regularly; but you dramatically overestimate the teensy caloric deficit you created.
  • You may even eat healthy foods; but you are eating too much of them (i.e. “I had 2 cups of brown rice with my dinner!”).
  • You are drinking a protein shake after your 15 minute walk because you feel like you are supposed to have a “recovery drink.”
  • You are eating/drinking “fake” foods (i.e. fat-free cheese, 100 calorie Oreo packs, sugar-free candy, etc.).
  • You are eating/drinking foods with way too many ingredients (read the ingredients on that “healthy” protein bar sometime…).
  • You lack consistency with meal timing from day to day.
  • You feel as though you have to “cheat” at some point during the week.
  • You’re restricting foods or food groups for no other reason besides trying to lose weight.
  • You’re juicing fruits and vegetables rather than eating them.
  • You get super-motivated, buy a bunch of vegetables, exercise like crazy….but for 4 days. Then you quit and complain that you didn’t see any results.
  • You pay more attention to calories, “macros,” or any other number on the nutrition label than on the actual quality of food you are consuming.
  • You simply do not eat enough (or any) vegetables, fruit, or whole grains.
  • To you, a “salad” has mayonnaise and noodles in it rather than leafy greens.
  • To you, a “salad” has iceberg lettuce, a couple shards of carrot, and a pile of ranch dressing on it rather than dark leafy greens and other vegetables with a touch of good-quality-fat-containing dressing.
  • You get your nutrition information from Dr. Oz, a book written by any MD who [has zero nutrition education] decided to get out of bed one day and deem pinto beans as “bad for you.”
  • You’re avoiding bread and potatoes because “carbs are bad for me.”
  • You sit all day or you exercise hard and then sit all day.
  • You’re trying to educate yourself through lunchroom conversations and google searches involving people who are not nutrition experts, and you’re getting bogus information.  It’s ok to seek assistance from a qualified professional.  We can’t do everything by ourselves all the time.

Listen. You might say “what do you know about being fat?” Well, I’ll tell you that I wasn’t always very healthy. I was a sort of chubby kid growing up; and a chubby adolescent. I was straight up fat in college, and for a bit after college. I know what it is like to be scrutinized for my weight – try being a nutrition professional who is a little chunky…I really struggled for some credibility!

The point is, I started to apply all this junk I had learned in school and from research toward my lifestyle. Here’s a shocker: it works. The less complicated you make this [lifestyle switch], the better. It’s not necessarily as much about eating less (although in some ways it is!) as it is improving quality. Both quantity and quality are of equal importance here.

Weight loss 101 (again, in no particular order of importance):

  • If your main beverage isn’t water, you’re wrong. Stop it with the juices or anything else sugary (including fake-sugar). Water, maybe some hot or cold tea, a small amount of black coffee is no big huge deal. Limit caffeine, avoid artificial sweetener, avoid added sugar, eat whole fruit rather than drinking juice.
  • Take a look how you’re setting up your plate. ¼ of your plate should be of something protein-rich: lean meat, fish, nuts, eggs, seeds, beans, cottage cheese, hummus, cheese, peanut butter, peas, etc.   ¼ of the plate should be a good-quality starch: whole starchy vegetables (corn, potatoes, beans, peas) or 100% whole grain products. ½ of the plate should be full of a variety of non-starchy vegetables. Fruit can be included on the plate in a small amount or separate as part of a snack.
  • Get up. Walk around the house more. Try not to be sitting for more than 30 minutes at a time, even if all you do is stand up for a bit. Ideally, you will benefit from performing strength exercise (lifting weights, doing push-ups, etc.) and cardiovascular exercise (biking, walking, etc.) most days of the week. Don’t overthink this either; just try to sit less than you move.
  • Eat meals/snacks at consistent times from day to day. You don’t have to eat at literally the exact time every day; but try to be pretty close. Don’t go more than 3-4 hours without having something nutrient-rich to eat
  • Meals should be balanced, and so should snacks. Have a protein-rich food with a good-quality carbohydrate food for a snack. A snack is just a teensy meal, really.
  • There is no such thing as “cheating.” Often you will make a choice to indulge in something you love, and it might not be very healthy. This is real life. You are entitled to and allowed to indulge sometimes. The trick is that this should be a “treat.” If you are doing something often, it becomes “routine” rather than a “treat.” If you do indulge, limit the amount and the frequency. If you know you have triggers, try not to have that stuff around. In other words, if you can’t eat only 2 cookies, don’t open the cookies.
  • Eat real foods. Look at ingredients before you even look at any number on the label. You should be able to recognize what’s in your food. The shorter the ingredients list, the better. Just because a food is “low in calories” does not mean it is good for you, and it does not mean it will help you lose weight. Count nutrients, not calories
  • Don’t dope up on protein. With some exceptions, you do not need packaged protein shakes or bars to build muscle and lose weight. Protein is critical to good health, but if you’re including some with meals and snacks, you’re probably getting enough
  • Stop obsessing. Listen to your body.  Eat foods you like, and learn to like new foods.  If you’ve been yo-yo dieting for a long time and/or if you’ve been on an erratic eating pattern for a long time, listening to your body takes time. Be patient, but be consistent while you’re being patient!
  • Get advice from a qualified person, such as a registered dietitian nutritionist. I’ve spent the better part of my career mopping up the ridiculous amount of misinformation that’s thrown all over the place. Every. Single. Day. “But they say ______?” Well guess what? I’m the “they”! Lots of people seem to want to claim their expertise in the field of nutrition, yet few actually took the time to become legit, credentialed sources. Be selective where you get your advice. I wouldn’t take advice on how to care for my jewelry from my mechanic.

You can do it.  Believe in yourself, get good advice, and be patient.

Cheers.