Sunday, November 24, 2013

How To Have A Happy And Remorseless Thanksgiving

What’s the worst thing that can happen on Thanksgiving?

You get seated next to your uncle with bad breath?

The turkey baster, your dog and your 3-year old all go missing at the same time?

The gravy is lumpy?

Your mom recites passages all throughout the meal from that revolutionary new diet book she's reading about how wheat is destroying our brains?

No doubt, all valid horrors. But if you have been taking steps to improve your eating habits and lose excess weight, your worst fear on Thanksgiving might be that you’ll eat the “wrong” things, ingest way too much, or just feel out of control and not enjoy yourself in such a food-filled feasting environment.

Handling holidays and social situations when working towards better health can be tricky and is something I spend a lot of time on with clients. But with a little forethought, a sense of humor, and the following tips, you can better equip yourself for a non-gluttonous and thoroughly enjoyable Thanksgiving.

14 tips to make your day go as smooth as gravy:

1. Help plan the menu or bring a healthier dish to share
Dietitians love this tip (unless you’re coming to our houses!) because many of us are menu control freaks (just me? Ok, never mind). So while you don’t have to exert the menu vice grip, the goal here is to help create a healthier balance at the meal—one idea is to tip the balance of menu items to include more deliciously healthy vegetable dishes (recipes featuring sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, spinach, carrots, squash, beans, and parsnips to name a few are all great for this season) and lean protein items, with fewer calorically-dense and nutrient-poor dishes (ie those that are excessively sugary, overly fatty, or devoid of vegetables).

2. Do a Turkey Trot, Drumstick Dash, Wattle Waddle or any other fun Thanksgiving day-themed event that gets you up and moving that morning
Is there really any better way to start the day than running with a bunch of other hungry Pilgrims? This has been a newer tradition in my family for the past three years and we love it. The events are fun, easy (you can usually walk or run), and everybody’s generally in a good mood (except for that guy who decided to wear shorts despite a race-time temp of 3 degrees). One caution here: don’t use your 3-mile walk as an excuse to eat like you just climbed Mt. Everest for the rest of the day. Find a Thanksgiving Day walk/run event near you!

3. Throw the turkey neck away. 
No good will come of it. Just. Throw. It. Away.

4. Keep your normal eating schedule throughout the day
There’s nothing pious about “saving yourself” for the Big Meal. Arriving at the table overly hungry will likely leave you looking and feeling like a ravenous hyena (but I guarantee YOU won’t be laughing once the gorging is done).

5. Map out your plate prior to the meal
Do a quick inventory of what is being served: figure out which meal items you absolutely can’t miss, and then leave those items that aren’t really your favorites. Doing this will help weed out unnecessary extra calories. I don’t recommend getting too caught up trying to craft the perfect nutrient-proportioned plate for Thanksgiving. It’s one meal. You'll live. 

6. Gluttony is not mandatory on Thanksgiving
You don’t have to fill your plate until things are dripping off the edges. I say, if you can still see what color the plate is once you've dished your food, you’re off to a good start.

7. Imagine how you want to feel after the meal. 
If you actually want to feel like a beached whale, disregard these tips. If you’d rather feel nicely satisfied, just full enough, and even deserving of a little more pie later, make choices conducive to this goal.

8. Handle food pressures from family and friends with style
If your nosy great-aunt makes condescending comments on how “healthy” you seem to be eating this year compared to Thanksgivings past in which you got busted for pocketing dinner rolls, simply get up from the table, bend over, and start twerking. Subject. Changed. You’re welcome.

9. Set a timeframe and drink limit for alcohol consumption
This is one tip that seems to work well for clients who fear “overdoing it” in the midst of merriment and boozey relatives. My uncles swear by one beer every 30 minutes for 5 or 6 steady hours but I’m fairly certain this strategy has no proven health benefits. Instead, figure out the number of drinks and timing that will work best for your specific situation and stick to your plan.

10. Expect and accept that you will likely eat more this day
Realistic expectations are very important so you don’t needlessly beat yourself up for eating a bit more than usual.

11. Don’t let your cat sit at the table
I’ve tried this one for you already. Even your family members think it's kinda weird.

12. Take a nap
There is life after the meal, and it’s waiting for you on the couch. Not only is sleep good for you, but escaping to the nearest sofa in a feigned, yawny stupor post-dinner is a winning strategy to get out of doing dishes.

13. Don’t forget to be thankful
Truly savor the food, the family, traditions, and togetherness. I’m guessing that, like mine, your life’s cornucopia is probably a little more than half-full of tiny pumpkins and gourds so cherish this time and make it count.

14. Keep a sense of humor about it all and an eye on the big picture of your eating. Tomorrow is another day, after all. Unless you ate that wheat roll. Then it’s all over. Sorry.

Check out what Healthy Hausfrau is cooking up this year below. Feel free to share what your family is making in the comments section!

Healthy Hausfrau Thanksgiving Menu

Roasted turkey

Stuffing –my mother’s recipe

Assortment of fresh veggies and olives

Mark Bittman

Cooking Light

Bon Appetit

Food And Wine

Cooking Light

Eating Well

Happy Thanksgiving from The Healthy Hausfrau! ;)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"Say no to moderation?" I quit.

Should we just "say no to moderation" as one health blogger recently advised? Is eating in moderation contributing to our obesity problem? Do we really need to stop using that naughty "M" word?

You don't want to miss the latest in diet dogma delusion!

Check out the Guest Post I wrote for here.

Then feel free to let me know what you think about eating in moderation.

Friday, November 8, 2013

{Recipe} barley, sausage, and spinach with mushrooms & basil

I've been making this dish for years. I love it because 1) it's super yummy and 2) it's an easy primer for anyone who isn't too familiar cooking with whole grains. It's also a complete meal in one! ;) 


Yield: makes about 4 servings

2 cups free-range chicken broth
1 cup quick-cook barley
~12 oz Italian turkey sausage, casings removed
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, sliced or chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 small jalapeno pepper, chopped, or 1/8 tsp red pepper flakes
8 oz sliced baby bella mushrooms
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/4-1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced
2 T sherry
5 oz organic baby spinach
Coarsely ground salt to taste
1/4 tsp coarse black pepper

Place broth in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Add barley to pan. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer about 10 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed.

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add sausage to pan; heat until cooked through, stirring to crumble. Transfer cooked sausage to a bowl.

Heat oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, peppers, and mushrooms; saute until soft and liquid evaporates. Add garlic and basil and saute 1 minute. Return sausage to pan. Stir in sherry; cook about 2 minutes.

Stir in spinach until wilted. Add cooked barley; cook 1 minute or until heated through. Add salt and pepper.

This dish makes good use of fiber-rich foods: all the veggies and the whole-grain barley. Fiber has many benefits, including helping to increase satiety (make you feel more "full" on fewer calories), promote good digestion, and lower blood cholesterol.

Each serving contains ~365 calories.

Pro Tips
Pre-washed, bagged spinach is one of my favorite things to cook with. Healthy ingredients don't get any easier than this, folks. Fresh spinach can be added to soups, skillet dishes, sauces--just about anything--and ups the nutritional profile of any meal immensely! I use organic spinach whenever I can since spinach is on the "dirty dozen" list, which means it is one of the produce items most likely to be contaminated with pesticide residue.    

Enjoy ;)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Lectins and Leaky Gut Syndrome: Good Reason To Give Up Grains and Legumes or Just Another Exaggerated Food Fear?

I’m not a big fan of food fear-mongering or diet extremes, so when I see foods that can play a part in a healthy diet get thrown under the bus (usually for dubious reasons, at best), my skin bristles a little. Of late, I’ve been challenged with the assertion that whole grains and legumes should not be eaten for various reasons, one of those being that they contain anti-nutrients. What inevitably follows in these anti-grain and legume diatribes is that one particular anti-nutrient, lectin, is especially insidious and causes a condition called “leaky gut syndrome.” Consequently, the opinion is that lectin-containing foods such as whole grains and legumes should be avoided.

“Legumes = lectins = leaky gut = leaky brain. I’ll get my carbs and protein elsewhere.”

I shared this quote from an individual I encountered in another post, and I’ve included it again here because I think it’s the perfect example of the true fear and confusion that exists surrounding whole grain, legume, and lectin consumption. Not surprisingly, the individual quoted above closely adheres to the Paleo diet, and it has been my observation that much of the popular anti-grain and legume sentiments generate within this community, as well as in the general low-carbing crowd. These two dietary sects renounce grains and legumes (yet interestingly enough make Paleo Cupcakes and Primal Cookies on the weekend!), but I won’t expound upon the virtuous or faulty aspects of these diets in this post—as always, eat whatever diet suits your health best (though I can’t emphasize enough the value of true dietary balance, eating primarily whole and real foods, and aligning your intake with your caloric needs), but before you banish a food from your eating repertoire, be sure you have all the facts and aren’t eliminating something on unfounded fear.

So are lectin-containing foods such as whole grains and legumes as dangerous to our health as proponents of certain diets purport? Do they really cause the terrible-sounding leaky gut syndrome? While this post won’t be a completely comprehensive discussion of lectins (I do want you to read this, after all), my hope is that I can help provide factual information, clear up some confusion, and, with any luck, silence the hysteria.

What are lectins?

Lectins are carbohydrate-binding proteins found in most plants as well as in dairy. Plant lectins are most abundant in plant seeds but are also found in other tissues such as roots, leaves, bark, flowers, or bulbs. It has been surmised that lectins play a defensive role in plants by protecting the plant against attacks from microorganisms, pests, and insects. As an example of this mechanism, it has been noted that an infection or wounding of a plant increases lectin concentration. Within animals, lectins facilitate cell-to-cell contact, which, as will be discussed later, can prove both positive and negative.

Lectins are found in a wide range of commonly-consumed foods such as tomatoes, beans, peas, wheat germ, rice, corn, garlic, avocado, leek, cabbage, tea, parsley, oregano, spices, bean sprouts, carrots, green beans, white mushrooms, cantaloupe, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, and roasted peanuts. From this listing, it is clear that exposure to lectins is a frequent occurrence for most people.

What are lectins capable of doing in the body?

In high doses, lectins can indeed be toxic. Consider the fairly well-known example of red kidney beans, which can cause a type of “food poisoning” (with resultant vomiting, cramping, and diarrhea) if consumed in the raw state or if improperly prepared.

In animals injected with high levels of lectins, a variety of suboptimal health occurrences have been observed. For example, absorbed lectins can impact distant organs, promoting such conditions as pancreatic growth or atrophy of the thymus.

When given to experimental animals orally, high levels of lectins can interact with gastrointestinal mucosa, triggering acute GI distress symptoms (as in the case with raw red kidney beans), as well as other negative effects. Because lectins have a high resistance to proteolysis and are stable over a wide pH range, they can survive the acidic, enzyme-containing stomach and therefore make the entire journey from mouth to colon mostly intact and biologically active. This has been made clear with the finding of intact lectins in human feces.

Since lectins do survive digestion and are uniquely capable of binding to cell receptors on the gut wall and elsewhere, our bodies may produce antibodies to them or, on the other hand, may induce tolerance. If the body’s defenses do gear up to attack the “invading” substances, a more widespread immune response can result. This has led to speculation that lectins could be involved in autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis.

With a substantial proportion of the lectin molecule intact in the gut, lectins are able to bind to cells lining the digestive tract, which can lead to direct membrane damage or can indirectly affect intestinal bacterial flora. In the case of the former, the reaction between lectins and cell membranes is believed to alter cell function in one way or another, producing adverse effects. For instance, the binding of lectins to liver cells in diabetic rats appears to contribute to clumping, deformity, or permeability of cells.

Binding of lectins to gut epithelium can also lead to brush border disruption, perpetuating a reduced absorption of nutrients secondary to a decreased absorptive surface area.

There is also word floating around that lectins from legumes are causing obesity, by means of leptin (a hormone which regulates food intake and body weight) resistance; however, the only available information I found on this was one medical hypothesis presentation (not a study). 

Equally as important to point out when discussing lectin activity is that lectins may just as easily arrive in the gut intact and NOT bind to mucosa, in which case there is typically little or no harmful effect induced. What corresponding factors must be present for lectin-induced damage to occur is still not clear, though lectin studies with rodents done to date have provided some more insight.
It’s not clear in what circumstances ingested lectins cause damage

In experimental rodents, lectin activity and the potential for subsequent toxicity is influenced by the degree and type of bacterial growth in the intestine, and studies suggest that certain microorganisims in the gut may even be lectin-facilitating.

Another observation from a study of excised rat GI tract segments treated with lectins points to the idea that lectins may only prove toxic when GI tract cells have been exposed to prior mechanical stress, as lectins can potently block repair, thus increasing membrane disruption. 

As with most any dietary element, dose and context seem to make a huge difference in regards to lectins, and I feel it is crucial to insert a reminder here that the amount of lectin necessary to produce most of the adverse effects seen in rodent studies is significantly higher than the amount that would be consumed in a typical human diet.

The mechanistic factors which dictate the fate of ingested lectin are not completely understood. Whether lectins will cause harm may be dependent on the overall diet history and composition of the diet, as well as the condition of the gut flora, among other factors. Research is still ongoing to determine both the dose and the environment in which lectins produce unfavorable outcomes

Leaky gut syndrome and...lectins?

As alluded to in the introductory section, lectins in whole grains and legumes are often cited as being causative agents of a Loch Ness Monster-esque condition called leaky gut syndrome. Because fear of developing leaky gut syndrome often lends itself to the avoidance of whole grains and legumes, I thought it would be wise to dig into what we know about the leaky gut syndrome phenomenon and separate the fact from the flimsy extrapolation.

What is leaky gut syndrome? While not officially recognized yet in the medical community, leaky gut syndrome is said to encompass a wide range of symptoms including gas, bloating, sensitivities to foods, cramps, skin conditions (eczema, hives, psoriasis), as well as aches and pains. Additionally, leaky gut syndrome has been blamed for a variety of disorders including chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, allergies, and depression. It isn’t clear how many people claim to have this condition.

In reality, leaky gut syndrome is still a medical mystery—a very gray area—to doctors, who ascertain that presentation of leaky gut syndrome symptoms usually indicates that there is another diagnosis that needs to be made.

What causes leaky gut syndrome? The proposed theory is that increased intestinal permeability secondary to damage of the intestinal lining, leads to this condition. It is further surmised that a compromised intestinal barrier then lends noxious contents (bacteria, incompletely digested proteins, etc) access to various internal sites and circulation, potentially triggering an autoimmune reaction.

As might be expected, lectins are often too easily implicated by some as causing leaky gut syndrome, since they do have the ability in some cases to cause intestinal damage; however, this allegation of cause-and-effect is merely inference and has not been proven.
Even in more well-known disease conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the question remains as to whether a compromised intestinal barrier is part of the cause of disease, or is the resulting effect. To date, studies investigating associations between a leaky gut and certain disease states have only been correlative.

Since both human and mouse studies indicate that intestinal barrier loss alone, regardless of cause, does not necessitate disease in otherwise healthy people, it’s not certain what could or should be done with someone who presents with increased intestinal permeability in the absence of other diseases such as IBD or Crohn’s disease. Also, it’s pertinent to point out that all intestinal permeability is not bad, as permeability confers functions such as supporting nutrient and water absorption. 

As of right now, evidence for how to best medically treat leaky gut syndrome is not there—so be warned of anyone who professes to have such an answer. Some alternative medicine practitioners claim that restoring gut barriers will cure underlying disease, but this has not been proven in clinical studies. Additionally, some of these same practitioners are recommending unsubstantiated dietary supplements to cure leaky gut syndrome, so hang on tightly to your wallet.

Now, if symptoms ascribed to leaky gut syndrome are, in fact, being caused by Crohn’s or celiac disease, for example, treating these conditions should resolve the issue. Of course, it is important to consult with your physician—digestive disorders are no joke, and appropriate treatment often resides outside of mere diet modifications.

Should you be concerned about lectins from normal consumption?

The lectins consumed in normal human diets do not seem to be harmful. As evidenced by the many people who eat and tolerate them, the majority of lectins ingested by humans appear to reach the gut without provocation, or if they do interact, do so in a harmless or even beneficial way. As previously mentioned, much of the research done with lectins involves artificially high doses, which do not correspond to typical human intakes. More research is needed to determine what effect lectins have at normally-consumed levels in the human diet, as there have been zero long-term studies in healthy individuals examining the effects of this.

Moreover, while there’s a lot of noise about the potential downsides of lectins, they can be beneficial, too. The body uses lectins for cell-to-cell adherence, inflammatory modulation, and programmed cell death. There may also be supplementary advantageous uses for lectins at non-toxic doses, with research being carried out in the areas of gut regrowth following total parenteral nutrition as well as in anti-cancer therapies.

Additional thoughts and tips before we conclude

Since the following assertion is inescapable in discussions pertaining to eating whole grains and legumes, lectins, and leaky gut syndrome, I might as well throw in my two cents now. I’m pretty sure some of you are thinking, “But we weren’t meant to eat grains or legumes! The toxins and anti-nutrients they contain are proof that they don’t WANT to be eaten!” From an evolutionary standpoint, we may very well not yet be fully adapted to eating grains and legumes. Keep in mind that at some point, humans weren’t adapted to (and many still aren’t) drinking lactose-containing milk from other mammals, but that doesn’t make milk a non-nutritious food that definitively needs to be avoided. 

Furthermore, it’s my view that we weren’t “meant” to do a lot of things that we do today (were you meant to be reading this post on your iPhone in an airplane at 50,000 feet above the earth? was the human body meant to sit on its butt at a desk job everyday? were we meant to eat fatty grain-fed feedlot meat? were people living in the northern latitudes of Minnesota meant to be slathering coconut oil on every morsel of food that touches their lips?), yet we do, because we now live in 2013, not in the Paleolithic era

And as for grains and legumes not wanting to be eaten—please show me an animal that wants to be eaten and maybe I’ll reconsider that argument. Anyway, my take here is that we have these food sources available, they can be a nutritious part of a healthy diet, and are enjoyable to eat, so why not?

Additionally, what Paleo diet proponents and others who shun grains and legumes frequently overlook is the fact that traditional processing of these foods greatly reduce or eliminate lectins. Soaking, fermenting, sprouting, and cooking grains and legumes are all techniques that will deactivate, thereby decreasing, lectins. While fermentation and sprouting generally destroy lectins more efficiently, the two most common techniques for whole grain and legume processing, soaking followed by cooking, will also degrade a good proportion of lectins. Raw red kidney beans can contain up to 70,000 lectin (hemagglutinating) units but through overnight soaking and proper cooking (boiling for at least 10 minutes), lectins can be reduced to safe levels. It is estimated that fully cooked beans contain around 300 lectin units.

My conclusions

With the evidence available at this time, the mere presence of lectins found in plant foods should not be used as a reason to avoid whole grains and legumes. In the many studies I read on this topic, despite potential negative actions of lectin, the consensus among researchers is that ingestion of lectin at levels after processing is unlikely to pose a risk to human health in otherwise healthy individuals.

While there is plenty of scientific literature (largely in observational but also in controlled studies) associating legume and whole grain consumption with health benefits, what is reliably missing, is research showing detrimental effects of normal consumption of whole grains and legumes. Though it is observational, it’s still valuable to mention that diets in the “Blue Zones,” where some of the longest-living people reside, are very plant-heavy—including beans and grains as a staple.

I see no reason to avoid whole grains or beans based on the potential of lectins to cause harm, or the very elusive possibility of getting the even more elusive leaky gut syndrome, if you are able to tolerate these foods and enjoy them. Diets that prohibit whole grain and legume intake without substantive evidence to do so seem absurd.


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