seared scallops and boiled eggs on green salad for a healthy fast lunch

Perfect Portions Made Easy

Calorie counting to manage meals and portion sizes? We’ve got a handy trick for you!

Counting calories or points, keeping a food diary, or otherwise painstakingly tracking food intake is a chore, at least for most. While it can certainly be effective in bringing awareness to your portion sizes and meals, the time and effort it takes most people often leads to frustration and loss of motivation. Efforts at healthy eating can quickly be derailed.

Sometimes keeping a precise count of calories, carbs, or fats can be important, as in the case of some health conditions. If this is you, please continue to follow your doctors instructions! If this isn’t you though, and you are trying to track food, calories, carbs, or fats for the sake of general health or weight loss, good news: there’s an easier way to manage your meals.

Your hand is the perfect portion control guide. It’s proportionally sized to your body, stays consistent, and you’ve always got it with you. Estimating portion sizes based on your hand means there are no fiddly measurements to make (you can easily make a visual comparison – it doesn’t have to be exact!) and no math involved in building a healthy plate of food. While this method has been gaining in popularity in recent years, it’s actually been recommended in numerous nutrition textbooks for years as well as being widely recommended by non-profit health and nutrition organizations and government agencies.

Like this infographic? CLICK HERE it to download it with get bonus meal-management tips!


Fast Facts: Magnesium

While present in only small amount in the body, magnesium is nonetheless one of the most important dietary micronutrients. In over 300 of the chemical reactions required to sustain life, it acts a co-factor – essentially a “helper molecule” that is needed for an enzyme to carry out its function. Many of these reactions have a key role in creating your body’s energy and in efficient nervous system function. On a whole-body level, many people report that magnesium has a calming effect, helping to manage anxiety, decreasing muscle cramps, and can lead to better sleep.

Men tend to need more than women, thanks to a generally larger body size, however most people have a much-lower-than-recommended intake daily basis. In Australia, a national health survey in 2011-2012 showed that anywhere from one-third to one-half of the population did not meet the required intake, depending on age group (older adults are at higher risk.) A 2005-2006 survey in the United States found that a majority of Americans did not meet estimated average requirements (EAR) of magnesium, and it should be noted that the EAR measure is the intake level estimated to meet the requirements of 50% of healthy individuals, which may be a lower level than your individual requirements. In short, most of us don’t get adequate magnesium supplies from food.

This can be due in part to food choices (some are more magnesium-rich than others) as well as the impact of other nutrients on the body’s ability to absorb magnesium. Additionally, some diseases and health conditions can impact the body’s ability to absorb the mineral, and some lifestyle choices – like higher levels of physical activity or exercise – can lead to higher intake requirements.

 

Magnesium is involved in:
  • Cellular energy production via carbohydrate and fat metabolism
  • Protein and DNA synthesis
  • Regulates transport of ions (chemical molecules) across cell walls, plays a large role the muscle cells ability to contract and relax
  • Chemical reactions that create cellular “second messengers” that send signals within a cell
  • Movement of cells to damaged areas, and wound healing
  • More than 300 enzyme-driven chemical reactions all over the body
Food sources of magnesium include:
  • Dark leafy greens, especially spinach and Swiss chard
  • Nuts and seeds, especially pumpkin and sunflower seeds
  • Beans and legumes
  • Whole grains, especially quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice, and barley
  • Potatoes
Getting too much magnesium can lead to:
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue, weakness, and sleepiness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Very low blood pressure
Not getting enough magnesium can lead to:
  • Abnormal heart rhythms
  • Muscle cramps or twitching
  • Nausea and loss of appetite
  • Problems with moods, thinking, and memory
More on magnesium:
  • The body has complex controls to help regulate magnesium levels. You may absorb more of the mineral from food if your intake is low, and excrete more if your intake is high. (Even with high absorption, you can still have inadequate intake.)
  • Role in bone integrity: Up to 60% of your magnesium is stored in your bones, and as such, it plays a key role in bone metabolism. Studies have shown a low levels of long-term magnesium deficiency can lead to a significant amount of bone loss.
  • Role in blood sugar control: Studies have found that low magnesium can worsen blood sugar control, and that improvements in control are seen when low magnesium levels increase.
  • May help decrease risk of Type 2 Diabetes: Diets high in magnesium are associated with a significantly lower risk of diabetes.
Magnesium combined with other medications and health conditions:

Taking vitamins or minerals may have adverse effects when combined with some over the counter or prescription medications, and some medications can decrease absorption. Some health conditions can be impacted by high magnesium intakes. Talk to your doctor prior to increasing your magnesium intake if you have or are taking:

  • Diabetes
  • Alcoholism
  • Nutrient interactions: Very high doses of fiber, protein, and zinc supplements may make it more difficult to absorb magnesium, and Vitamin D and calcium may help absorption. More research is needed to confirm this though, especially outside of laboratory conditions (i.e. in the real world).
  • Bisphosphonates: Medications or supplements that are high in magnesium can decrease oral bisphosphonates absorption, such as medications used to treat osteoporosis.
  • Antibiotics: Magnesium can prevent the absorption of some antibiotics.
  • Diuretics: Long-term use of some diuretics can increase the loss of magnesium in urine and lead to depletion. In contrast, other diuretics can reduce magnesium excretion.
  • Proton pump inhibitors (used to decrease stomach acid): When taken for prolonged periods (typically more than a year) these drugs can cause low magnesium levels.
Reference List
Lukaski, H.C. (2001). Magnesium, zinc, and chromium nutrition and athletic performance. Can. J. Appl. Physiol. 26(Suppl.): S13-S22.
Berardi, J., Andrews, R., St. Pierre, B., Scott-Dixon, K., Kollias, H., & DePutter, C. (2017). The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition, Third Edition. Toronto: Precision Nutrition, Inc.
ODell, B. L., & Sunde, R. A. (1997). Handbook of nutritionally essential mineral elements. New York: Marcel Dekker.
Office of Dietary Supplements. (2016, February 11). Office of Dietary Supplements – Magnesium. Retrieved October 16, 2017, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Magnesium-HealthProfessional/

Fast Facts: Vitamin C

Vitamin C is one of the best known micronutrients. However, the average daily intake is often lower than expected. You might not be getting as much as you think.

Vitamin C is perhaps best known for immune system support. Interestingly, while some immune cells need vitamin C to function (and you may be more susceptible to illness if deficient), there is no concrete scientific proof that increasing your intake makes a significant difference in the duration or severity of colds. Of course, if you’re otherwise generally healthy, it’s also not likely to do you any harm, as our bodies are excellent at secreting excess.

Vitamin C is also an antioxidant, working to help balance the body’s chemical reactions and prevent cellular damage from free radicals. It helps your body absorb iron and protects levels of vitamin E, and is needed to produce collagen (a key structural protein) and several neurotransmitters (the chemicals that carry signals throughout your brain and nervous system). It also plays an active role in cholesterol management, helping to convert cholesterol to bile acids, which in turn lowers cholesterol levels.

Much of the research on vitamin C has shown greater health benefits when you get your C through food rather than tablets or pills. Of course, eating whole foods provides you with many other nutrients as well, so food is almost always a better option than supplementation. Individual variation exists of course, so it’s worth trying a few approaches to find the right method for you.

Vitamin C is involved in:
  • Protecting cells from free radical damage, as an antioxidant
  • Improving dietary iron absorption
  • Regenerating vitamin E levels
  • Building collagen, an important structural protein
  • Production of norepinephrine and serotonin
  • Chemical transformation of cholesterol to bile acids
  • Maintaining the functional ability of some immune cells
Food sources of vitamin C include:
  • Citrus fruits (lemon, orange, lime, tangerine, etc.)
  • Cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, etc.)
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Berries and melons
  • Squashes and carrots
  • …and most other fresh fruits and vegetables!
  • Organ meat, if that’s your thing
Getting too much vitamin C can lead to:
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas and/or upset stomach
  • Increased risk of kidney stones

There is little to no evidence that high vitamin C intake from food sources leads to any signs and symptoms of excess intake.

Not getting enough vitamin C can lead to:
  • Poor wound and structural repair
  • Poor dental health
  • Poor immune response
More on vitamin C:
  • Vitamin C levels in food are quickly reduced by heat, oxygen, and storage. You can slow these losses by refrigerating your fruit and veggies and storing them whole.
  • Nicotine decreases the effectiveness of vitamin C, and smoking in particular leads to higher levels of free radicals, so tobacco users may need greater dietary intakes of vitamin C
  • Some research has shown that vitamin C may help slow plaque buildup in arteries and keep blood vessels more elastic, leading to decreased risks of heart attack and stroke. However, this research needs more support, and there is no evidence that taking vitamin C supplements will help (it needs to come from food sources to be protective).
  • Evidence also shows that people who eat diets rich in vitamin C are less likely to be diagnosed with arthritis, though there is no specific evidence that vitamin C supplements will help treat or prevent this.
Vitamin C combined with other medications and health conditions:

Taking vitamins may have adverse effects when combined with some over the counter or prescription medications, and some medications can decrease vitamin absorption. Some health conditions can be impacted by high vitamin C intakes. Talk to your doctor prior to increasing your vitamin C intake if you have or are taking:

  • Kidney problems
  • Regular use of aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen – These can increase vitamin C excretion. Somewhat confusingly, high vitamin C intakes can decrease drug excretion, leading to increased blood levels of the drug.
  • Regular use of acetaminophen (Tylenol) – High vitamin C intakes can decrease drug excretion, leading to increased blood levels of the drug.
  • Antacids containing aluminum – Vitamin C can increase aluminum absorption, which can make medication side effects worse. Aluminum-containing antacids include Mylanta, Maalox and Gaviscon.
  • Barbiturates – Including phenobarbital and others, these may decrease vitamin C effectiveness.
  • Chemotherapy drugs – Vitamin C may interfere with some chemotherapy drugs, though it is also speculated that vitamin C may make them more effective. Don’t increase vitamin C intake (or any other supplement) without talking to your oncologist!
  • Oral contraceptives (birth control pills) and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) – When taken with these drugs, vitamin C can increase estrogen levels; Oral estrogens can decrease vitamin C effectiveness.

Food Friday: Chickpea and Feta Salad

This is one of my FAVORITES.

Not your normal lettuce or spinach-based salad, this salad is packed with flavor thanks to the punch and crunch of parsley and celery, set off by creamy feta cheese. It’s also quick to put together and keeps well – I like to make a big batch and take it to work for a week’s worth of lunches so I have something fresh, healthy, and satisfying on hand.

I usually stick to the recipe as written because it’s so quick, but this salad is super flexible. You can add other veggies in for a bit more color or crunch, or fill it out with additional leafy greens of your preference. My go-to additions include spinach, cucumbers, finely chopped red onion, and/or red or yellow capsicum or bell pepper. (Not a celery fan? I’m generally not either, but I actually really enjoy it in this combination.)

This salad is also packed with nutrients.

Parsley – High in vitamins A, K and C, as well as iron and other nutrients like beta-carotene and zeaxanthin, which helps protect and support eye health

Celery – Significant anti-inflammatory properties come from more than a dozen different antioxidants, as well as high levels of fiber, which is essential for a healthy digestive tract

Chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) – A great plant-based protein source, and also high in fiber, folate (vitamin B9), and minerals including copper, molybdenum, manganese, and phosphorus

Feta – Additional protein, plus calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin B12. Feta is also sodium-heavy, so if you’re on a sodium-restricted diet, use less of this – a little goes a long way!

Lemon – Even the small amount of lemon in this will give you a big dose of vitamin C

Olive oil – As well as being high in monounsaturated fats, which are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, olive oil has high levels of vitamins E and K, and numerous antioxidant and anti-inflammatory molecules

Your taste buds and your body will love it!

 

Chickpea and Feta Salad (serves 2 as a main dish)

4-5 cups of chopped parsley and celery leaves

3 large or 4 small celery stalks, chopped into 1/2 inch or 1cm pieces

1 can of chickpeas, drained

1/2 – 2/3 cup crumbled feta cheese

Small wedge of lemon, for dressing

Small drizzle of olive oil, for dressing

Notes: Celery and parsley leaves have similar flavors, so you can use any amount of either. A can of chickpeas equals about 1 3/4 cups – if you want to cook your own, start with a little over a half-cup of dry chickpeas. The canned chickpeas will be a little softer, but either option works well.

Combine all ingredients, using more or less of anything as desired, and including any additional veggies you might like. Squeeze lemon wedge over salad and drizzle with olive oil right before serving.


Label Reading 101: How To Pick Healthy Foods

Flip a packaged food over and have a look at the nutrition information on the back. Lots of numbers, big words, tiny print. Is it any wonder people get confused?

Reading labels can be an effort – at least when you aren’t used to it. But they are also a treasure trove of information about how that food might impact your health, once you know what to look for. Learning labels takes a little thought – mainly, figuring out what you are looking for – and then a little practice. Give it a try and you’ll be pleasantly surprised how quickly you’ll get the hang of it!

The Background

Many factors determine how “healthy” a food is. But regardless of your personal situation (allergies, intolerances, or other specific dietary needs), there are a few fundamental ways to help you determine if a food is going to be good for you. None of these will probably come as a surprise, but instead of just telling you to “read labels”, we’re going to discuss exactly what you want to be looking for when you’re looking, giving you a clear understanding of how to make the best choice (for you!).

It is generally assumed that the less processed a food is, the higher its nutritional value will be. Higher nutrient value is, of course, a big step toward being healthier and better for your body. More processed foods, on the other hand, are usually made up of whole ingredients that have been broken down, some parts taken out, other additives (sometimes from other food products, other times manufactured) put in to keep some sort of appealing taste and/or texture, and then reassembled into the final food product. Cheap for the manufacturer, often appealing to the consumer, but usually these are not things that our bodies love – even if it can boast being “low carb” or “fat free”. (Though as it turns out, neither low-carb nor fat-free foods are sure paths to a healthy diet.)

Actual real food, on the other hand, is minimally processed and has a much higher nutritional value, and often doesn’t even have a package or label. Common sense tells us “fresh is best”, right? Since that’s not always possible (or practical), this article is directed towards choosing the healthiest of the foods that actually come in packages and with labels.

So, how do you determine to maximize the health and nutrient value of the foods you choose to buy and eat?

Check the ingredients

This is my first stop on a food label, even before the nutrition numbers. Since each ingredient and added component (the additives) of a food need to be listed, the shorter the list, the less processed that food is likely to be. My rule of thumb is that any packaged food that I buy has five ingredients or less.

Interesting side note: Ingredients are listed in order of quantity, so the ingredient that comprises the largest percentage of a food will be listed first, the second largest percentage will be listed second, and so on. This can be helpful if you’re after a specific packaged food that has something relatively undesirable in it, since it can help you gauge how much of that ingredient you might actually be consuming, and whether you are ok with that amount or whether you would prefer to avoid it.

Check the ingredients – part two

Other things I’m thinking about when I’m checking out the ingredients list:

Can I actually pronounce what’s on that list? You should be able to. At the very least, you can probably recognize when something doesn’t sound like it’s naturally occurring.

Are there numbers? Numbers are not ingredients or components of food items occurring in nature. Red 5? Steer clear.

Would I cook with what’s on that list (or at the least, expect that a chef could cook with it)? If you could (conceivably) purchase and cook with each ingredient on the list, you probably have a less processed, more nutritious food on your hands. If an ingredient sounds like you might need to get it from a lab instead of a supermarket, you might not want to be putting it in your body.

The big exception: Many packaged foods are fortified with added vitamins. This is not always undesirable, as these particular additives can be highly beneficial to health and body function. But often what we might recognize as good stuff can be on an ingredient list under a different name – for example, Vitamin B2 is also known as riboflavin, a name that is definitely more chemical-sounding.  If the ingredient list is pretty simple with one or two exceptions that you aren’t sure about, a quick Google search can tell you all about the mystery words!

Read the Nutrition Label

In Australia, certain information is required to be on a food label, including:

  • The energy content: In everyday terms, this is the calorie count. The term Kilojoule is also becoming more popular. Both refer to how much energy the food provides.
  • The protein content.
  • The fat content, including the amount of saturated fat.
  • The Carbohydrate content, including the combined amount of naturally occurring and added sugars.
  • The sodium content.
  • The amount of any other nutrient (or biologically active substance) about which a claim is made. For instance, if a package states a food give you B vitamins, it should list those vitamins on the nutrition label. Go look at your jar of Vegemite and you’ll see what I mean!

My goal in choosing a given food is to maximize the nutrient value while minimizing the calorie (energy) content.  I primarily look at energy content and protein. If there isn’t a clear preferred choice, I’ll also check out total carbohydrates and relative amount of sugar, and lastly, total fat and how much of which kind(s).

I’ll also take into consideration the serving size, since the nutrition numbers mean nothing without that figure. And since often the serving size is just some random number, here’s my pro tip for figuring out if that “serving” is realistically what I’ll be eating: Look at the serving size compared to the total package size. For instance, if the total package weight is 400g and a serving size is 100g, I’ll consider whether I’m likely to eat a quarter of that package. If I think that’s unrealistic, but I still plan to buy that food, I’ll do some mental math – or get out my phone – and revise that nutritional data upward or downward as needed.

Lastly, when I have the option, I also like to compare the nutrition data from a few different brands of the same or similar products, since I’m usually shopping for something specific and I want the healthiest version. The “per 100g” column provided alongside the “serving size” column makes it way easier to compare which brand is going to meet my needs the best.

Ignore the rest of the packaging (In general)

Ever heard the saying “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”??

Simply put, many products that make health claims on the packaging miss the mark in other ways. Because low-fat, low-carb, or sugar-free products have often been processed to meet these claims, these foods are often additive-heavy to keep the food appealing when we actually eat it.

Call me cynical, but I generally regard health claims on food packages with suspicion. That specific claim may be true, but what in that food has been lost in order to meet that claim? Often what has been given up (or taken out) isn’t worth the “benefit” you get, particularly when other options are available. But that’s just one lady’s opinion!

 

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Making Positive Changes

Making changes to our normal routine or habits can be difficult at the best of times, and especially when the change we want or need to make isn’t one we are excited about. Many people find themselves in this sort of conundrum when it comes to improving their health, fitness, and wellbeing. We know we should be doing something different, and we even have a good idea of what is it, but we just don’t realllly want to.

However, we don’t need to make sweeping changes to have a positive effect on our lives. Making good food choices and moving our bodies more are where we’ll most benefit, and if we can make progress in one or both of these, we are well on our way to feeling (and looking and living) better.

But where to actually begin? There is abundant information available, and mis-information too. Couple that with frequent pressure (both from external sources like the media, and from ourselves) to doing everything right, and the thought of making any change can be overwhelming.

Let’s fix that.

In a nutshell, the key to making permanent change to habits or routine is to set yourself up for success. Pick ONE thing to work on at a time, so you don’t get overwhelmed by making a million changes all at once. And go easy on yourself: New habits and healthier routines are created when we make our desired behavior or choice easier than making our old, habitual, less desirable choice.

Example 1: You are on your way home from work and starving. The options: Pizza, or making a healthy dinner… Hmm.

What if you had some chicken and salad ready and waiting for you when you got home? Because there is no work and no waiting involved, you’re more likely to head straight for that (even if pizza sounds more appealing).

Example 2: You are thinking about exercising more, but you HATE the thought of joining a gym. Then a friend calls and asks if you want to join a recreational soccer team (or insert other fun activity here: hiking, running around with the kids, line dancing, etc.).

Picking an activity that involves movement and fun is going to beat the activity that involves movement and boring and hard. Bringing a friend along can also up the enjoyment factor, making you even more likely to stick with it.

Bearing in mind that we want to pick something that is an easy addition to our lives, the best changes we can make are the ones that will have the greatest impact on our lives. We want the biggest bang-for-buck, especially early on, because success in itself is motivating. The more you have, the more inspired you are to work harder, and hard stuff becomes easier because it’s your ticket to continued progress. “Most impactful” can be different things to different people, so it’s worth taking time to consider what life might look like with one new habit versus another.

Bear in mind that you might not come up with an idea that is totally fun and really easy – sometimes you give a little of one to get a little of the other, and that’s ok too, as long as it is ok with you. There are no rules – just keep tweaking an idea until it really works.

The Takeaway: When you want to make a change, make it easy on yourself:

  • Choose one new activity, behavior, or choice to work on at a time. This allows us to focus, and cements this new, positive change faster. Adding a second desired change greatly reduces our ability to make either permanent. Stick with one thing until you find yourself doing it without thinking about it, then consider what change you might like to make next.
  • Choose the simple, most impactful things to work on first. Most of us have a number of ideas about what we can do to “get healthier”, thanks to a seemingly-infinite number of news sources. Worry more about eating less cake than eating more kale (or whatever the latest trendy superfood is).
    • Make it easy by choosing the things that are easy for YOU
    • Think about “bang for buck” – what is the one thing you could do that will give the most progress?
    • Realize that the easiest thing might not have the biggest bang-for-buck, and that’s ok!
  • Master the basics, and then move to greater challenges. Start with something you are confident that you can be successful with. Ask yourself: Am I confident that I can 90% stick with this chance for the next week? If yes, go for it! If not, continue to simplify it until you feel that you can stick with it 90% of the time.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. None of are on our best behavior all the time. This is why we use the “90% test”. When you make a choice that isn’t in line with your changed behavior, don’t stress about it. Every hour of every day can be a fresh start, so if you slip up, shake it off and keep moving forward.
  • Do celebrate your successes. (Maybe not with cake.) One of the best ways to cement a change is to associate it with something you enjoy. This can be done on a daily basis: think about eating extra broccoli as you enjoy that juicy steak, or go walking with a friend instead of by yourself. Celebrate your bigger successes too. When you feel confident in your new habit, reward yourself – go for a massage, get a manicure, see a movie. Treat yo’ self!

Last but not least, remember that small steps are the best approach. Take your time and you’ll create lasting habits and permanent, satisfying change!