All posts by Amy Reiter

Clearing Up the Confusion About Salt

We consumers may find ourselves all shook up when it comes to salt — unsure about how to absorb the latest research, which can seem to conflict. One minute we are warned to be super-careful about our salt intake or hazard increasing our risk of a host of health woes, including high blood pressure — and are further cautioned that high sodium consumption could be raising our children’s risk of heart attack and stroke. The next minute we’re told our efforts to cut down on salt intake by easing up on our salt shakers is not going to help much — and that, in fact, consuming less sodium might not do much to lower blood pressure after all.

 

A recent New York Times headline seemed to sum up the current don’t-know-what-to-thinkness of it all: “Why Everything We Know About Salt May Be Wrong.” Oof. The Times article beneath the headlined filled us in on two new studies of Russian cosmonauts that found that salt may not make us more thirsty, as is widely believed, but actually less so — yet it may make us hungrier. Further research determined that mice burned more calories — and ate more — when they consumed more salt.

 

The studies contradict “much of the conventional wisdom about how the body handles salt and suggests that high levels may play a role in weight loss,” the Times reported. Still, one expert suggested to the paper, the studies results may not mean the conventional wisdom about sodium and blood pressure is wrong, but rather that we may be right about “the adverse effects of high sodium intake … for all the wrong reasons.”

 

Why is it all so confusing? “The biggest issues are that the general public doesn’t know all the places salt is hiding, plus when they see a value for salt content they don’t know when it’s too much,” says Dana Angelo White MS RD ATC, Healthy Eats contributor and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc.

 

Most Americans take in the majority of our sodium through processed convenience foods and restaurant foods, so if we eat a lot of these foods, we are probably consuming more salt than we should be, White says. “The daily recommendation is 2,400 milligrams per day, but many Americans take in far more than that,” she notes.

 

White advises consumers to check labels carefully to make sure we are aware of the sodium content of the foods we eat and to cut down when necessary. And those who cook at home, she says, ought to season the food as they go, adjusting to taste, so as to avoid going overboard.

 

We all need salt, which is a vital electrolyte, White says. However, she cautions, our bodies need only 1,500 milligrams per day, so most of us should at least aim to keep our consumption under 2,400 milligrams per day, an allowance White calls “generous.”

 

“Those with high blood pressure may need to be more conservative” with their salt intake, she says, “while athletes that sweat and lose more salt need to take in a bit more.”

 

And no, sweating out the calculations to figure out how much salt you’ve consumed probably doesn’t count.

 

Amy Reiter is a writer and editor based in New York. Her work has appeared in publications including The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Glamour and Marie Claire, as well as Salon, where she was a longtime editor and senior writer. In addition to contributing to Healthy Eats, she blogs for Food Network’s FN Dish.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

How One Simple Vending Machine Tweak Could Prompt Healthier Choices

You’re at work, feeling a little hungry, low energy or just in the mood to take a break, so you stroll down to the vending machine in search of a snack. You feed some cash into the machine and choose something that catches your eye. A few minutes later, you’re sitting at your desk with an empty bag, greasy fingers and an unmistakable sense of regret. Why didn’t you choose something healthier?

 

Making snack decisions in a snap doesn’t always bring out the healthiest eater in us. To quantify this truism, researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago created a device that can be installed in vending machines that delays the dispensing of unhealthy snacks (candy and chips, for instance) for 25 seconds and but allows healthier snacks (nuts, popcorn) to be dispensed straightaway. A sign on the vending machine lets people know unhealthy snacks will take extra time to receive.

 

Guess what happened when the experimental machines were made available around campus? Yep, people began to choose healthier snacks.

 

“We saw a roughly 5 percent change in the proportion of healthy snacks” sales, Brad Appelhans, the associate professor of preventative medicine who led the project, told NPR.

 

It’s unclear whether people were inclined to pick healthier items to avoid the delay (and skirt the inconvenience) or because of it (more time to consider), but even those of us who don’t have access to the tricked-out vending machines can benefit from hitting the pause button when making our food choices, says Philadelphia-based registered dietitian Marjorie Nolan Cohn, MS, RDN, CEDRD, CSSD, ACSM-HFS. Implementing a snack delay — just allowing ourselves a little extra time to consider our options and their potential effects on our well-being — may allow us to break unhealthy habits.

 

“A simple wait period that allows someone to reevaluate their decision internally could be very beneficial,” she says. Being mindful of the sodium content of foods or considering total fat and calorie content, she adds, may be especially important for those who have high blood pressure or are trying to lose weight.

 

Cohn also recommends planning snacks ahead as well. “Even if you change course throughout the day from your plan, simply having a plan will promote more thought of what one is choosing to eat,” Cohn says. “And when someone thinks about what they eat — from a health perspective — they tend to choose foods that are better for their body.”

 

So next time you’re craving that midday candy bar, try counting to 25 and think about how it will affect your body and how you will feel afterward. You may just find yourself opting for a handful of nuts or some fresh fruit instead.

 

Amy Reiter is a writer and editor based in New York. Her work has appeared in publications including The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Glamour and Marie Claire, as well as Salon, where she was a longtime editor and senior writer. In addition to contributing to Healthy Eats, she blogs for Food Network’s FN Dish.

Nut and Seed Butters Are a Trend Worth Spreading

Here’s a toast-worthy trend that just might stick: Nutrition experts are increasingly looking beyond trusty old peanut butter and going nuts for other sorts of protein-rich nut and seed spreads – sunflower butter, sesame butter and more. (SB&J? Why not?)

“When it comes to nut and seed butters, variety is the spice of life!” says San Diego-based nutrition coach, registered dietitian and culinary nutritionist EA Stewart, MBA, RD at The Spicy RD. Healthy Eats asked Stewart to share her thoughts about the incredible spreadable trend:

 

How do seed and other nut butters compare nutritionally to trusty old peanut butter?

While all nuts and seeds contain heart-healthy fats and fiber, each nut and seed is unique in its nutrition profile, so it’s a good idea to include a variety of them in our diets. For instance, macadamia nuts are very high in monounsaturated fats, while flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts are the highest in omega-3 fats. Almonds and hazelnuts are an excellent source of vitamin E, while pumpkin and other seeds are rich in magnesium, a nutrient many of us fall short on. Bottom line: Enjoy a wide variety of nut, seed and legume (peanuts) butters in your diet to get the greatest nutrient bang for your buck. The only potential downside is to keep portion control in mind, as nut and seed butters are a concentrated source of calories, and it’s easy to go overboard.

 

Why do you think seed butters and non-peanut nut butters are currently in vogue? And do you think the trend will last?

Now that we have the go-ahead to include more healthy fats in our diet, nut and seed butters are a delicious way to incorporate these mono and polyunsaturated fats. Nut and seed butters are also low in carbohydrates. Plus they’re a staple for many of today’s popular diets, including Mediterranean, vegan, and paleo diets. As more manufacturers jump on the “alternative nut and seed butter wagon,” I think it’s a trend that’s definitely here to stay!

 

What are some of the seed and nut butters you think people should try?

While peanut butter and almond butter will never be out of vogue, I’m a huge fan of cashew nut butter, as well as pecan and walnut butters. In addition, sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds butters are delicious options for people with peanut or tree nut allergies.

 

What is the best way for people to eat seed and nut butters?

Um, let’s start with straight off the spoon! Dietitian mom confession time: Sometimes when I’m pressed for time in the afternoon, right before I pick my kids up from school and start the afternoon shuttle service to sports and other activities, and I know it’s several hours until dinner, I will dip my spoon into a jar of nut butter and know that I’ll be full and energized until dinner. Aside from that, nut and seed butters pair perfectly with fruit (apple and banana slices) and whole grains (bread, crackers and tortillas), and are great blended into a smoothie. When my sweet tooth hits, I like to sprinkle a few chocolate chips on a spoonful of nut or seed butter for a healthy treat.

 

How can people get their hands on seed and non-peanut nut butters?

While more and more grocery stores are carrying a variety of nut and seed butters these days, it’s so easy to make your own, and quite a bit less expensive too. A couple of ideas to try:

  1. Cinnamon Raisin Walnut Butter: Combine walnuts, sea salt, maple syrup and cinnamon in a food processor until smooth. Stir in raisins.
  1. Vanilla Maple Pecan Butter: Combine pecans, sea salt, maple syrup and vanilla in a food processor until smooth.

 

Amy Reiter is a writer and editor based in New York. Her work has appeared in publications including The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Glamour and Marie Claire, as well as Salon, where she was a longtime editor and senior writer. In addition to contributing to Healthy Eats, she blogs for Food Network’s FN Dish.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

A New Study Offers Yet Another Reason to Eat Avocados

If you needed another reason to dip your chip (or better yet, a crisp veggie) into a bowl of yummy guacamole, a new comprehensive research review has offered a good one.

 

The review, published in the journal Phytotherapy Research, evaluated the results of 129 studies to determine the effects of the avocados on various aspects of Metabolic syndrome, which is a group of risk factors that raises your risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

 

The review concluded that the vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and certain phytochemicals (natural plant chemicals that help fight and prevent disease) in avocado may help combat blood pressure, diabetes and other components of Metabolic syndrome and provide a natural alternative to other forms of treatment.

 

“The pharmacologically active constituents” of avocado are not only “nutritionally valuable,” the authors write, but also “possess antifungal, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity in some studies.” They also help lower cholesterol and help prevent cardiovascular disease, and potentially even cancer. Everyday consumption is recommended.

 

“Avocados start with great taste, but they also serve up a bunch of vitamins, minerals, fiber and heart-healthy fats,” says Virginia-based registered dietitian nutritionist, certified diabetes educator, and certified health and wellness coach Jill Weisenberger (who was not involved with the study review). “For example, they contain the blood pressure friendly mineral potassium and the B vitamin folate, which is important for DNA repair. Avocados are terrific for my patients with diabetes because they add so much flavor with just a little carbohydrate.”

 

Weisenberger, author of The Overworked Person’s Guide to Better Nutrition, recommends replacing some of the saturated fats in your diet with heart-healthy unsaturated fats in order to improve cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of heart disease and potentially make the body more sensitive to insulin.

 

“Avocados can help with this,” she says, advising that people dice it onto salads for additional creaminess instead of sprinkling on cheese or mix it into mashed potatoes instead of butter. (Smashed avocado can be used to replace butter in a 1-to-1 ratio.)

 

“For most people, it’s a good idea to add a little bit to other foods or to swap a less nutrient-dense food out for the delicious, nutrient-dense avocado,” Weisenberger says.

 

So how much avocado should you eat? Because avocados, like nuts, are flavorful and satisfying, but rich in fat and calorie dense, moderation and mindful eating are key.

 

“A little bit can go a long way,” Weisenberger says. “A few slices to a third of an avocado is a reasonable amount for most people.”

 

Sound good. Now, who’s up for avocado toast?

 

Amy Reiter is a writer and editor based in New York. Her work has appeared in publications including The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Glamour and Marie Claire, as well as Salon, where she was a longtime editor and senior writer. In addition to contributing to Healthy Eats, she blogs for Food Network’s FN Dish.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

The Dietary Perils of Being a Night Owl

Are you a morning person — awake early with the larks and sparrows — or a night person who stays up late with the owls? If you answered the latter, you may make less healthy dietary choices and be at a greater risk for obesity, a new study indicates.

Researchers in Finland who studied the behavior of 1,854 participants between the ages of 25 and 74 determined that, even though morning and night people tended to take in the same amount of calories, the timing of their intake and the kinds of foods they ate differed.

On weekday mornings, night people tended to eat less in general, but consumed more sugary foods than morning people. Meanwhile, in the evenings, late-night types tended to take in more calories overall and especially sugar, fat and saturated fats than morning people.

On weekends, the differences between early risers and late-night types were even more stark – with night people eating more calories overall as well as more sugar and fat. They also ate more frequently and at more irregular hours than morning people. (Hello, late-night snack attacks.)

“Postponed energy and macronutrient intake timing of evening types with unfavorable dietary patterns may put them at higher risk of obesity and metabolic disturbances in the future,” the authors of the study, published in the journal Obesity, concluded.

The study adds to a growing body of evidence indicating that the “timing of meals is very important for our health and all calories are not created equal,” Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, the owner of Nutrition Starring You, LLC, tells Healthy Eats.

“People who eat more in the earlier part of the day and less in the latter part lose more weight and have improved glucose, insulin sensitivity and lipid metabolism compared with those who eat the same exact food but in the opposite order,” she says, citing a 2013 study conducted by researchers in Israel.

Skipping meals during the day, when our bodies are most active, and snacking unhealthily at night as we watch TV or surf the web, may affect the way calories are processed or stored. What’s more, we tend to make less healthy food choices at night – chips, ice cream and the like – which in turn may make us less hungry for nutrition-dense breakfast foods, like oatmeal, yogurt, eggs and fruit.

So what’s a night-owl to do? Harris-Pincus generally suggests her clients stop eating at least three or four hours before they hit the sack in order to curtail “mindless” nighttime snacking. Still, she allows, “Each person needs to make choices based on what works for their lifestyle.”

Amy Reiter is a writer and editor based in New York. Her work has appeared in publications including The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Glamour and Marie Claire, as well as Salon, where she was a longtime editor and senior writer. In addition to contributing to Healthy Eats, she blogs for Food Network’s FN Dish.