The Right Amount of Alcohol Can Benefit Your Health

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Nutrition is a complicated science. Some of what we know makes complete sense, but often the science seems counter-intuitive. For instance, most people know that fruits and vegetables are good for you, but they don’t know that alcohol can be good for you, too. The confusion often stems from the fact that nutrition isn’t usually an “all or nothing” matter. It’s also dangerous to assume that “if a little is good, more is better.” Nutrition science is more like a “Goldilocks” situation: It’s unhealthy to have too little or too much of anything. In nutrition, the amount of a food or nutrient needs to be “just right” in order to benefit your health.

Alcohol is a perfect example. Through the decades, most studies have shown that light to moderate alcohol intake is connected to a reduction in all causes of death (except for breast cancer). But drinking zero alcohol, or too much alcohol, in many studies, have been associated with increased death rates. Your cardiovascular system particularly benefits from the right amount of alcohol. A recent study published in the journal, Clinical Nutrition, found that only light drinking (1 to 7 drinks per week) was associated with a reduced risk of heart failure. Previous studies have also found light drinking to be beneficial for metabolic syndrome, the cluster of conditions that occur together that increase your risk of stroke, heart disease, and diabetes (high blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, triglycerides and excess belly fat). But too much drinking is clearly associated with increased death rates. And all scientific experts agree, if you don’t drink, this is not enough of a reason to start. Simple healthy living surpasses benefits of light drinking.

To learn more about wine’s and alcohol’s health effects, read my article about it.

Health authorities recommend women stick with a maximum of 1 serving of alcohol daily, and men maximize at 2. The definition of one (1) serving:

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Springtime Strawberry and Goat Cheese Salad

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Strawberries are finally here! The Farmers Markets are brimming with them. The first fruit of spring, strawberries signify new beginnings and everything that’s good. Of course, the easiest way to eat them is right off the vine. But you can use them creatively in recipes  – not only in desserts, but in savories, too. The following salad, from my good friend Mike Gardner, can be served as a side dish or a main course.
Mike Gardner’s Springtime Strawberry and Goat Cheese Salad
This is a great salad for a hot day.  Let the strawberries sit long enough to absorb the balsamic vinegar flavor while you take time to catch up with friends and enjoy the summer day.
Ingredients
For the strawberries:
1 pint of ripe strawberries, if they are large, cut them in half
1/2-3/4 cup balsamic vinegar
For the salad:
Baby spinach
Baby arugula
Goat cheese crumbles
1 small red onion, sliced
1 ounce of toasted almonds
For the dressing:
3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp dijon mustard
1/4-1/2 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Directions
Prepare the strawberries by placing them into a bowl and add the vinegar.  Let them sit for a while to absorb the flavor of the vinegar- an hour or better.  This can be done at room temperature.
In a separate bowl. make the dressing by combining the vinegar, dijon mustard, salt and pepper.  Slowly stream in the olive oil, tasting for flavor balance.  If necessary, add additional mustard to taste.
When ready to serve, combine equal parts of baby spinach and arugula.  Add in the sliced red onion, and lightly toss the salad with a small amount of dressing, adding more as necessary slowly dressing the salad as to not drench it all at once.  Add the goat cheese crumbles and almonds.  Lastly, plate the salad onto a chilled serving plate.  Using a slotted spoon, remove the strawberries from the vinegar and place them on top of the greens.  Finally, top with fresh ground pepper and serve.

Four Tips for Choosing the RIGHT Olive Oil

Photo from Georgetown Olive Oil Co.

Photo from Georgetown Olive Oil Co.

My clients regularly ask me how important using olive oil is. Of course, we have all heard about olive oil’s health benefits. But there is still understandable confusion. I’m regularly asked, “How does olive oil compare to other oils? How does it work? What kind of olive oil is best? How much should I use?” My answer: It depends…

These are important questions as more and more science is finding that the nutrients in olive oil, called “polyphenols,” are responsible for its superior health benefits. Increased longevity, reductions in cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, obesity, diabetes, and various cancers, are among the benefits, confirmed a 2015 review of studies published in the British Journal of Nutrition. But olive oils can vary significantly in their polyphenol content. There are four times more phenolic compounds in high quality extra virgin olive oil versus low quality or refined olive oil – 232 mg vs 62 mg per kilogram of oil – so it is important you choose the right olive oil.

“99 percent of olive oil’s health benefits are related to the presence of the phenolic compounds, not the oil itself,” said Nasir Malik, NIH Scientist.  “And without the polyphenols, you might as well use the less expensive canola oil.”

Surprisingly, when tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, polyphenols were low in most commercially available olive oils. They also didn’t live up to international quality standards defining extra virgin olive oil. These standards require an acidic pH, necessary to protect the nutrients. And the olive oils’ pH had degraded – even in the highest end gourmet shops – according to studies conducted at the University of California at Davis Olive Center.

That’s because olive oil’s polyphenol content diminishes, and its acidic pH degrades over time, as days, weeks, and months go by after harvest. Other factors play a role, too: the harvesting methods, the age of the trees, the ripeness of the olives, the processing, and the storage. Since time, heat, and light affect polyphenol content, choose olive oil that:

  • Is no more than one year old (look for the harvest date on the label),
  • Is in an air-tight, dark glass, or tin container,
  • Is stored in a cool environment, and
  • Smells and tastes like olives, which could be fruity, grassy, or peppery.

Is olive oil better for your health than other oils? The answer is yes, according to a new study in Nutrition & Diabetes. For one, “The risk of type 2 diabetes reduced by 13% with increasing intake of olive oil up to 15 to 20 grams per day (3 to 4 teaspoons),” according to the study.  When refined olive oil, or other oils, were compared, fresh extra virgin olive oil was more beneficial for the prevention and management of diabetes. It was associated with lower fasting blood glucose, and Hemoglobin A1C, a three-month average of blood glucose and an important marker for diabetic complications.

Other studies have found high polyphenol olive oil improves health in many ways:

  • Increasing levels of good cholesterol (which helps clear artery-clogging fat from the bloodstream),
  • Improving artery wall health and functioning (important for healthy blood pressure, blood flow, reducing blood clots, and the risk of cardiovascular disease), and
  • Reducing oxidation and inflammation processes involved in many diseases from infections to cancer.

To take full advantage of your olive oil’s flavor and health benefits, save your recently harvested, high quality extra virgin olive oil for drizzling on vegetables, salads, or anything! When cooking with high heat, i.e., stir frying, use canola oil or nut oils instead, as they can be less expensive, and have higher smoking points so can tolerate higher temperatures without burning.

My favorite vinaigrette: Mix 1 or 2 tablespoons of olive oil with 1 or 2 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice, salt and pepper. The proportion of olive oil to lemon juice depends on how tart you like your vinaigrette. You can also add a smidge of mustard or herbs. Serve!

One shop in Georgetown which consistently sells high quality olive oils is Georgetown Olive Oil company. It is locally owned and operated at 1524 Wisconsin Avenue. The shop displays rare-to-find information, such as the oils’ date of harvest, provenance, and detailed descriptions. And you can taste any of the oils at any time. I highly recommend this cozy and friendly specialty shop where they clearly understand what makes a great olive oil!

For more detailed information on olive oil, read my Washington Post article: “Most Olive Oil is not as Healthful as You Think” 

Georgetown Olive Oil's Varietals EVOO-2016 CRUSH (olive oil color is determined by the olive from which it is made)

Georgetown Olive Oil’s Varietals EVOO-2016 CRUSH (olive oil color is determined by the olive from which it is made)

My Favorite Asparagus Recipes

Puree of Asparagus Soup with Tarragon prepared and photographed by Mark Indre

Spring has always seemed more like the new year to me than January first. Perhaps my inspiration comes from longer, warmer, sunlit days, delicate vegetables and fruits, like asparagus and strawberries, finally popping up, flowers blooming everywhere. Neighbors begin venturing out of winter hibernation with their first happy greetings of the year, with sounds of their children playing in the street. Celebrations are occurring all over the city showing off our beauty and splendor to the tourists. In fact, I think I’ll make my New Year’s Resolution today! And it’ll be easy – preparing batches of veggie salads – or soups, at least weekly, to help me and my friends shed some of our winter “padding.” Making delicious veggies your main course at dinners (lunches, too) helps manage your weight easily. Asparagus is one of my major harbingers of spring. Here I’d like to share some of my favorite asparagus recipes excerpted from my book, Diet Simple Farm to Table Recipes: 50 New Reasons to Cook In Season!, where you’ll find dozens of other seasonal recipes:

Chilled Asparagus in a Creamy Tarragon, Shallot and Roasted Walnut Vinaigrette

Salad of New Potatoes and Asparagus with Lemony Garlic Herb Mayonnaise

Pasta with Pesto, Roasted Asparagus and Cherry Tomatoes

Asparagus Salad in a Vietnamese-Style Dressing

Puree of Asparagus Soup with Tarragon

Chef Janis McLean’s Asparagus Frittata

Is Butter Good For You?

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Butter is Back! And it’s even good for you? These declarations can be illustrated by the dizzying array of delicious butters now available: besides the old-fashioned American butters, you can easily find the extra rich Irish and French Butters, and a variety of premium, grass-fed, and organic farmers market butters extolled for their superiority, and with a premium price tag to match. Is this a food lover’s dream come true? Even some nutritionists have joined the bandwagon, and yours truly has been confused.

This seemingly good news may have started with the widely read earth shattering 2002 New York Times Magazine story, “What if it’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” by Gary Taubes, featuring a big, fat, juicy piece of steak on the cover. More recently, Mark Bitman wrote a 2014 New York Times story covering a scientific study in the March 2014 Annals of Internal Medicine journal concluding that eating saturated fat, the so-called artery-clogging, demonic fat in butter, did not raise a person’s risk of heart disease. This exciting news, covered in just about every print and broadcast media outlet around the world, seemed to reverse decades of medical advice saying the opposite was true.

So, how do we hash out the truth?

This is an important question as one in every four deaths of Americans are from heart disease, so it’s a critical issue concerning the health of the majority of Americans – and my clients, who rely on me to get it right. After all, what’s more important than your health?

Upon exhaustive research, I’ve found the answer, interestingly, is not too different than conclusions made by Harvard scientist, Ancel Keys, and other respected scientists in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s: that the type of fat – not total fat – is responsible for the rise in heart disease because of its affect on blood cholesterol levels.

But how important is blood cholesterol level? A multitude of factors increase heart disease risk, such as calcification, inflammation, blood pressure, high triglycerides, diabetes, obesity, inactivity, smoking, family history, gender, and age. But, apparently, the correlation between high LDL(bad) cholesterol levels and heart disease has been well established and is still deemed significant to your risk of heart disease and your health. Conclusion: Keep LDL low (under 100) and HDL high (Over 40) to prevent heart disease risk.

And the most recent clinical study – the gold standard of scientific studies – has confirmed the worst (if you’re a butter lover, that is): Replacing the saturated fat in butter with unsaturated oils, not only raises HDL (good) cholesterol – which clears fat and reduces placque in the arteries – using oils instead of butter also reduces artery-clogging LDL (bad) cholesterol from the bloodstream. Conclusion: Use oil instead of butter to reduce heart disease risk. So, it seems the advice hasn’t changed since Ancel Keys discovered the superior health of Mediterraneans who used oil instead of butter.

autopsy of severe atherosclerosis of the aorta (by Wikipedia.org)

autopsy of severe atherosclerosis of the aorta (by Wikipedia.org)

In a recent Harvard School of Public Health’s analysis of the controversy, the scientists review decades of research showing the successful reduction in heart disease risk by doing things like replacing butter (high in saturated fat) with oil, replacing steak with salmon, and eating a plant-based diet based on fruits, vegetables and whole grains for the reduction of LDL cholesterol, the increase in HDL cholesterol, the resulting effect on lowering heart disease risk, and improving your overall health. Conclusion: “Butter is not back!” said Harvard’s Walter Willett.

So, what about those New York Times articles? Well… Caveat Emptor! Don’t believe everything you read, and consider the source (be sure the information comes from a peer-reviewed, scientific journal, and compare it to other established science).

To say this Swede, raised on cream and butter, is disappointed, is an understatement! But I still use luxurious butter sparingly, when I deem necessary!

And it’s a relief to know that all these years, helping my hundreds of clients lower their LDL and raise their HDL cholesterol levels by substituting butter with healthy oils and other lifestyle changes has not been a waste! WHEW! No rioting necessary 🙂

The Top 5 Food Do’s & Don’t’s Affecting Heart Disease Risk

American Heart Association

American Heart Association

In 2012, 45.4% of all heart disease deaths could be attributed to inadequate intake of certain foods, according to a recently published study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

We’ve known for decades that what you eat significantly affects heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, hemorrhages, diabetes, and inflammation. These results were based on a variety of different kinds of studies – epidemiologic, prospective, and clinical trials – set out to quantify the effect of specific foods on heart disease deaths.

The Intake of These Top 5 Foods, In Order of Predominance, Affect Your Heart Most Dramatically

1. High Sodium: Sodium, usually eaten in the form of salt, which is half sodium, pulls fluid into your blood vessels. This extra fluid increases the force of the blood against artery walls, reducing the flow of blood to your organs, making it harder for your heart to pump the blood efficiently, and damaging your heart. This excess force (or “pressure”) stresses the artery walls, potentially causing tears, blood clots, aneurysms and strokes. The recommendation is to take in less than 2,300 mg daily. Most Americans eat at least double that.

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2. Low Nuts and Seeds: Epidemiological studies have found for decades that nut and seed eaters around the world have fewer heart attacks. The oil in nuts contains nutrients which seem to have a positive impact on heart function and increases good cholesterol, which helps prevent bad cholesterol from clogging the arteries. Also, studies show nuts and seeds help keep body weight down, a major risk factor for heart disease. Eat 2 ounces per day for maximum effect.

3. High Processed Meats: Processed meats such as hot dogs, bacon, sausage, bologna and ham are a major sodium source. They’re also usually high in saturated fats, which increase bad cholesterol.  Since they are the highest dietary factor correlated with cancer, this gives you another reason to minimize processed meats. But when on the occasions that you might eat them, to minimize potential damage, pair with foods high in potassium and antioxidants, such as fruits and vegetables. Potassium and antioxidants may help neutralize the effects of sodium and the chemicals used in meat processing.

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4. Low Omega-3-Fatty Acid Fish: Omega-3-Fatty Acids help prevent heart disease in many ways. They prevent irregular heart beat, reduce fatty placques inside artery walls, decrease blood clotting, tryglycerides (blood fats), increase good cholesterol and decrease inflammation. The American Heart Association recommends eating about 12 ounces of fatty fish weekly.

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5. Low Fruit and Vegetables: Fruits and vegetables have many qualities responsible for the reduction of heart disease risk. They are high in potassium, which helps neutralize the effect of sodium on blood volume by pulling fluid from the arteries, reducing the blood’s pressure on the artery walls. They are high in water content, which studies show helps you feel more full with fewer calories, thus aiding weight loss (high body fat is the primary controllable risk factor for heart disease). Health authorities at the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend 5 cups of fruits and/or vegetables daily. They should comprise at least half of the volume on your plates.

A New Recipe For Improving Seasonal Allergy Symptoms

My Camellias bloomed in February!

My Camellias bloomed in February!

My clients who suffer from seasonal allergies were hit hard this year – and earlier than usual. The warm February temperatures caused Washington’s flowering trees and shrubs to come out of their winter slumber gloriously. Our famed cherry trees and camellias are almost in full bloom. Even my hydrangeas’ buds are peaking out.

This beautiful display does not feel so beautiful for people with spring allergies. They often have symptoms, caused by the flowers’ pollen, which impact their quality of life: lack of sleep, reduced productivity at work or school, emotional stress and embarrassment…. and the medications designed to improve those symptoms, depending on the person, may be no better, and cause dry mouth, sleeplessness, and drowsiness. A new study set out to test if certain strains of beneficial probiotic bacteria would reduce symptoms and improve quality of life during allergy season for its sufferers.

The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the first randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled trial – the gold standard of human research – testing this hypothesis, divided 178 allergy sufferers into two groups and tested them during spring allergy season for eight weeks. One group received the probiotic supplement*, the other received the placebo.

The study found the probiotic group experienced improved quality of life symptoms compared to the placebo group. That said, scientists are still working out which of the beneficial probiotic bacteria work best with individual allergens, when to start taking them, and which probiotic bacteria will react most positively with a person’s specific microbiota (the 100 million bacterial organisms in your digestive tract), as each person’s microbiota is different. They mentioned that starting probiotics at a younger age may be more effective, too.

In the meantime, I believe eating foods which naturally contain beneficial probiotic bacteria, such as yogurt, is the best solution for trying to reduce your allergy symptoms. In fact, I recommend eating yogurt every day! Though, I don’t recommend counting on supplements because, as of now, no probiotic supplements have passed the tests allowing them to make a health claim.

Here’s one of my favorite yogurt recipes developed by Georgetown resident, cookbook author, and my friend Najmieh Batmanglij, and found in my book, Diet Simple

Najmieh Batmanglij’s Yogurt and Spinach Dip

*(Lactobacillus gasseri KS-13, Bifidobacterium bifidum G9-1, and Bifidobacterium longum MM-2 provided by Wakunaga of America Co Ltd)

Vitamin D Boosts Muscle Strength, Power & Velocity While Lowering Body Fat

SunriseA new study reports that Vitamin D effects certain genes which are involved in muscle and fat mass and function. This could mean there is an important yet simple solution to the natural decline of muscle as we age, which could have many benefits – decreasing disease, falls, broken bones, and subsequent hospital and nursing home stays.

As we age, muscle mass and strength decrease, to the point where our muscles actually become “marbled” with fat (think bacon!), reducing their ability to function and our ability to live independent lives, according to the National Institute on Aging. That’s because muscle mass is essential for movement, balance, and even immune function. So if we don’t strength train as older adults, we’re more likely to lose our independence and end up in nursing homes, creating a massive public health burden, according to the study published in the journal PLOS ONE, and partly funded by the National Institutes of Health.

That said, we’ve known for years, and I’ve written about, the importance of working out, eating the right amount of protein, carbohydrate and fat, eating an anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidative diet filled with plant nutrients like polyphenols, (found in tea, fruits & vegetables), and living a low stress life. But there are other factors which come into play that scientists are studying. One may be Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin.

In the past several years, researchers are finding that Vitamin D may be instrumental in preventing diseases from colds, heart disease to cancer. Even multiple sclerosis, parkinson’s disease and insulin dependent diabetes. And now, Vitamin D seems to be correlated with an increase in muscle mass and a decrease in body fat. Yet the most needy population, the elderly, is usually deficient. That’s because Vitamin D is produced by being exposed to sunshine. Today, many of us don’t go outdoors and when we do we’re wearing sunscreen. That particularly pertains to the aging population, whose muscle mass can mean independence – or the loss of it.

How much Vitamin D does improving muscle mass require? What should your blood level be? Ask your doctor, but perhaps also share this recent data with him/her:  “[The National Academy of Sciences’ Food and Nutrition Board’s]  review of data suggests that persons are at risk of deficiency relative to bone health at serum 25OHD levels of below 30 nmol/L (12 ng/mL). Some, but not all, persons are potentially at risk for inadequacy at serum 25OHD levels between 30 and 50 nmol/L (12 and 20 ng/mL). Practically all persons are sufficient at serum 25OHD levels of at least 50 nmol/L (20 ng/mL). Serum 25OHD concentrations above 75 nmol/L (30 ng/mL) are not consistently associated with increased benefit.”

Most of us will need to get Vitamin D from a supplement because it’s in very few foods (egg yolks, salmon) and most of us don’t get enough sunlight. Again, ask your doctor about your personal situation. But, the latest recommendation from some Vitamin D researchers is 1,000 IU per day but up to 4,000 daily is safe (Vitamin D can be toxic at much higher levels)… This level is higher than the official National Academy of Sciences’ Food and Nutrition Board because they determine how much Vitamin D is needed to prevent rickets (a Vitamin D deficiency disease which softens the bones). They say the jury is still out as to how much is good for your overall health. The NAS scientists believe that more definitive research needs to be done to change their recommendation. In the meantime, it doesn’t hurt for healthy people to increase their vitamin D intake to up to 4,000 IU daily.

A Lethal, Cancer-Causing Bacteria Killed by Yogurt and Kefir

Inhibition of F. nucleatum by natural kefir, probiotic yogurt, commercial yogurt and commercial kefir samples

Inhibition of F. nucleatum by natural kefir, probiotic yogurt, commercial yogurt and commercial kefir samples

You’ve all heard about the health benefits of the probiotic bacteria found in yogurt and other similar fermented dairy products such as kefir. This recently published study provides more evidence of yogurt cultures’ actions against serious disease-causing pathogens, such as Fusobacterium nucleatum.

F. nucleatum can cause diseases in the mouth, teeth, brain, pleura, lungs and liver. It induces fetal death in pregnant women and can lead to colon cancer by binding to the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, according to a recent study in the journal, Functional Foods in Health and Disease.

In this study, when yogurt and kefir were added to a petri dish filled with F. nucleatum and incubated for 3 days, there appeared clear zones where the yogurt and kefir were placed. Thus showing inhibition of the growth of F. nucleatum. Interestingly, the plain milk used for the yogurt and kefir did not show an inhibitory effect, but the higher the concentration of the kefir and yogurt probiotic bacteria, the more F. nucleatum’s growth was inhibited.

“Previous studies have indicated that fermented dairy products can cause probiotic effects such as improvement in digestive system health, serum cholesterol reduction, and improvement in lactose tolerance, improved immune function, control of irritable bowel symptoms, as well as anticarcinogenic properties. Kefir is known to have positive effects on health and especially intestinal health. Therefore, these findings are important for showing an inhibition effect of fermented dairy products against a pathogen and possible carcinogen. These results suggest that regular consumption of natural fermented dairy products especially kefirshould be included in a functional diet. The impact of these cultured dairy products could be promising and warrants further investigation with in vivo studies,” according to the authors of the study.

Fresh Kale and Summer Peach Salad with Toasted Almonds and Balsamic Vinaigrette

Kale Peach Salad - bestThe local peaches at this year’s farmers’ markets are exceptional: sweet, juicy, flavorful. This recipe is a perfect way to feature them at any gathering. And it’s always a favorite! Excerpted from my book: Diet Simple Farm to Table Recipes: 50 New Reasons to Cook in Season!

Serves 6

 Vinaigrette:
3 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar
Salt and Pepper to taste

 Salad Ingredients:
6 Handfuls of fresh Kale (or other greens), washed, tough stems removed, and torn into bite-sized pieces
2 Cups Fresh Sliced Summer Peaches and/or any seasonal Berries
2 Ounces toasted slivered Almonds
½ Sweet Onion, peeled and sliced

In a large bowl, add the olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Whisk together. Add the kale, onion, almonds, and peaches and toss together. Serve immediately.

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