The hormonal shifts experienced during menopause can have an effect on your nutritional needs.  Today we’re discussing some health issues that could develop throughout menopause, and how you can protect yourself through diet and exercise.

Cardiovascular Disease
Estrogen has a protective effect against heart disease.  Decreased estrogen production following natural or surgical menopause is associated with an increased risk for heart disease.

Nutritional Tips:
  • Avoid trans fats- found in hydrogenated oils
  • Decrease saturated fat intake- less than 15 grams per day
  • Maintain a healthy weight

High Cholesterol
During menopause “bad” lipids like total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides increase while the “good” lipid HDL cholesterol decreases.  The risk for high cholesterol increases with menopausal weight gain.

Nutritional Tips:

Osteoporosis
Bone formation is a process that is directed by hormones.  Bone density begins to diminish in both men and women around age 40, but bone loss speeds up greatly for women after menopause.

Nutritional Tips:
  • Important nutrients for bone health are calcium, vitamin D, and magnesium.
  • Make sure you get plenty of protein to maintain bone mass.
  • Resistance training can increase bone density at any age- it’s never too late to start!

Weight Gain
Androgen hormones such as testosterone are the building blocks for estrogen.  During menopause there is not only a decrease in estrogen, but also a gradual decrease in androgens overall.  Androgens are responsible for building lean muscle mass, which helps to burn calories even when at rest.  That means less androgens can result in a lower resting metabolism.  This combined with the natural slowing of metabolism that occurs as we age can result in weight gain.

Nutritional Tips:
  • Decrease portion sizes
  • Minimize added sugar and oil
  • Load up on fruits and veggies
  • Engage in physical activity most days of the week
 
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Today we’re continuing our discussion on healthy seeds with the sometimes-overlooked sunflower seed.  Sunflower seeds are less expensive and more widely available than the other seeds we’ve discussed, and they’ve got some good nutrients packed inside of them.  Here are some of my favorite things about sunflower seeds:

Good source of Vitamin E.  One ¼ cup serving of sunflower seeds contains 60% of your Daily Recommended Value for Vitamin E!  Vitamin E is the only antioxidant we eat that is fat-soluble.  That means it has the power to stop free radical damage in fatty tissues, where other antioxidants can’t reach.  You can read more on how antioxidants work here.

A good dose of other vital nutrients.  Sunflower seeds are also a good source of magnesium and several B vitamins.  Remember from our discussion yesterday that the mineral magnesium is important for muscle and nerve health.

Refined sunflower oil is safe for high-heat cooking.  Cooking at high heat with a low smoke-point oil can result in carcinogens in your food and maybe even a fire in your kitchen!  Refined sunflower oil is safe for temperatures up to 450 degrees F, so you can use it for frying and roasting.  You can find more information on choosing the right cooking oil for the job here.

Safe alternative for those with nut allergies.  If you have a nut allergy, sunflower butter is a yummy replacement for peanut butter.  I don’t have an allergy, but I like to buy sunflower butter sometimes just because it tastes good!  If you have a severe allergy make sure you check the label to see if the butter was made on shared equipment with nuts.

Buy these seeds raw, not roasted.  Roasted sunflower seeds have had oil and salt added to them.  Buy these raw and toast them yourself if you want to bring out more flavor without the added fat and sodium.  You can toast sunflower seeds in a dry pan over medium heat for about 10 minutes, until golden and fragrant.

Just like any other food, sunflower seeds should be part of a varied whole foods diet.  Eating several different types of fresh, seasonal foods on a daily basis ensures that you get the range of nutrients your body needs.

 
In continuation of our chia seed discussion from yesterday, today we’re talking about the equally intriguing flaxseed.  Flax fibers have been grown to make fabric for centuries, and now the nutritional benefits of the flaxseed are being explored in modern research.

Get in those Omega 3 fatty acids!  Just like chia seeds, flaxseeds are a good source of Alpha Linolenic Acid.  The anti-inflammatory compounds in flaxseeds have been shown to be particularly helpful for irritated skin conditions such as acne, psoriasis, and dermatitis.  Read more about the benefits of Omega 3’s here.

Get a little dose of magnesium.  Many people I’ve worked with have diets that are chronically low in this mineral.  Magnesium is important for good nerve and muscle health.

Increase your daily fiber intake.  Two tablespoons of ground flax meal contains 4 grams of fiber.  Read more about the importance of adequate fiber intake here.

Get things moving.  Flaxseeds have been shown to relieve constipation in several clinical trials. However keep in mind that adequate hydration is the first step towards a successful bowel movement!

Tips for storing and using flaxseeds:

If you want to digest them, you’ve got to grind them!  Eating a flaxseed whole doesn’t do you any good, because it’ll just pass right through you (if you catch my drift).  The sturdy hull of a flaxseed is too tough for our digestive tract to break down.  Flaxseeds have to be ground into flax meal in a spice grinder in order to be digested.  You can buy flax meal already ground, but it’s more expensive and spoils much faster (see below).

Store these guys in the freezer.  The Omega 3-rich oil in flaxseeds causes them to spoil pretty quickly.  If you store them in the freezer they’ll last for months.

Works well as a culinary binder.  Flax meal turns thick and gooey when combined with warm water.  This can act as an egg substitute in baked goods or as a general thickener in other recipes.  I’ve used flax meal to make cookies, brown sushi rice, meat loaf, and other good eats.  It’s also tasty when combined with steel cut oats for breakfast.

There are two popular varieties of flaxseed: brown and golden.  Both have very similar nutritional properties, but the brown variety has a slightly more pronounced flavor.  Sometimes the golden variety is more expensive.  You can find flaxseeds at your local health food or specialty store, sometimes even in the bulk section!
 
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Today we’re discussing the uses and nutritional benefits of the chia seed, a plant native to Central and South America that has recently gained popularity in the US.  Yes, this is the same seed that you can smear on a ceramic animal to make a Chia Pet®!  Here are some of the benefits of choosing to eat your chia seeds instead of planting them:

Good source of Omega 3 Fatty Acids.  Chia seeds consist of a large percentage of Alpha Linolenic Acid, one of our heart healthy Omega 3’s.  You can read more about the benefits of adding these fats into your diet here.

High in fiber.  A one Tablespoon serving of chia seeds contains a whopping 4 grams of fiber!  That’ll get you moving towards your goal of at least 25 grams of fiber daily.  To read more about healthy aspects of fiber, check out this post.

They make a gel!  I don’t know that this is really a benefit, but it makes for a neat culinary tool.  I’ve used these seeds as a binder in place of eggs in several recipes, and it’s easy to make a pudding or gelatin-like dessert with chia.  Here are some chia seed recipes I’ve used before from other bloggers:


You can purchase chia seeds from a health food or specialty store.  If there isn’t a store nearby that carries them, they could also be mail ordered.  Chia seeds are shelf stable so they wouldn’t spoil during shipping.  I was happy to see that my local co-op has even started stocking chia seeds in the bulk section!


 
Many adults are afflicted by high cholesterol, which can lead to heart disease or stroke.  Over 14% of adults greater than age 20 in the US have high total cholesterol.  Research has shown that a regular exercise routine can help maintain a healthy cholesterol balance.  Here are some guidelines for crafting an exercise routine that will keep your heart healthy:

Get in that aerobic exercise.  A 2011 study found that moderate-intensity aerobic activity three times weekly improved the cholesterol of overweight participants after just a few weeks.  Moderate aerobic activity means something that gets your heart beating faster, increases your breathing rate, and makes you feel warm.

Add in some resistance training.  Another 2011 study found that resistance training three times weekly for 40 minutes also improved cholesterol significantly.  Resistance training could mean weight training, a resistance band workout, or swimming.

This research indicates that engaging in an exercise routine that includes both aerobic activity and resistance training most days of the week could help keep high cholesterol at bay.

Cholesterol is processed and packaged in the liver, so treat this vital organ of metabolism well.  You can read more on eating for liver health in this older post here.

Hey, I just happen to teach a really great type of exercise that incorporates both aerobic exercise and resistance training!  It’s called Kinesis™, and if you live in Seattle contact me about attending your first class free.

 
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I get a lot of questions about the health benefits of two foods in particular: dark chocolate and red wine!  People are rightfully curious about these foods, there have been many news stories on their beneficial properties.  Today we’ll discuss the nutritional profile of one half of said pair; dark chocolate.

Dark chocolate is a very good source of antioxidants; small molecules that can help decrease inflammation.  We’ll talk more about how antioxidants work in tomorrow’s post.

Let’s talk about the difference between dark chocolate and milk chocolate.  All chocolate is made by roasting cacao beans; then crushing and grinding them into cocoa solids.  Next a varying amount of milk, sugar, and cocoa butter is added to the mix.  As the percentage of milk increases, the percentage of cocoa solids decreases.  Cocoa solids are the component that contains all the good antioxidants we’re looking for.

So what percentage of cocoa solids is considered “dark?”  The FDA has not defined a certain amount, but in Europe 35% or greater is the standard.  Research shows that in order to get a beneficial amount of antioxidants you need a chocolate that is 68% dark or higher.  The darker it is, the more antioxidants you get!  My preference is Theo’s 85% Dark Chocolate Bar.   

While dark chocolate has a lot of good properties, it is still quite high in calories and saturated fat.  It also does have some amount of added sugar.  All this means it should be savored in moderation, about 1 oz at a time.

Watch those labels!  Because the FDA has no standard for what can be labeled dark, US candy manufacturers will label anything “dark” to sell it.  I purchased some candy a few months ago that claimed to contain dark chocolate.  When I looked at the ingredients, the first one on the list was milk chocolate!  Sneaky candy makers…

 
The inspiration for this recipe came to me from Sara, a creative foodie who orders me around when I work in the Human Nutrition Lab at Fred Hutch.

Ingredients
  • 2 Crispbread crackers like Ak-Mak or Wasa
  • A good handful of salad greens*
  • ¼ Ripe avocado
  • Whole grain mustard to taste
  • Red chili flakes to taste
  • A dash of lemon juice


Place avocado, mustard, red chili flakes, and lemon juice in a bowl.  Mash together with a fork until it forms a nice chunky paste.  Spread on crispbread and top with salad greens.  Be prepared to use a napkin when you eat it, between the crunchy crispbread and sticky avocado spread this is a messy one!

*Arugula or watercress would be great, I used escarole here.
 
There’s a lot of buzz going around right now about fish oil, which contains a high volume of Omega 3 fatty acids.  Today we’ll discuss what Omega 3’s are, why they’re so hot right now, and what foods (besides fish) contain them.

Omega 3’s are a particular kind of unsaturated fat.  Remember unsaturated fats are the ones that usually come from plants, and for heart health we want to eat more of these than saturated animal fats.

A number of research studies have shown that a diet rich in Omega 3’s can lower several risk factors for heart disease.  Overall they seem to be good at reducing inflammation, which is the root of many diseases.  Inflammatory conditions include asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and oodles more.

Food sources of Omega 3’s include:
  • Chia seeds
  • Flax seeds
  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Scallops
  • Shrimp
  • Soybeans
  • Tofu
  • Tuna
  • Walnuts

Our bodies can metabolize the type of Omega 3’s found in fish into something useful quite easily.  The Omega 3’s in plant sources are a little bit more challenging to fully metabolize into functional products.  Both are good to eat, fish will just deliver a more potent dose of Omega 3’s with a smaller amount of food!

If you’re interested in taking a fish oil supplement, you should talk it over with your friendly local Nutritionist or Dietitian so they can recommend what’s best for you.

If you thought “What the heck is a chia seed?” Yes it is the same thing as what you put on chia pets, yes you can eat it, and we’ll talk about how you can do that another time!

 
Today we’ll be turning our attention to the scientifically engineered black sheep of the fat family: trans fats.

In the commercial food industry, unsaturated plant fats are hydrogenated to enhance the texture and extend the shelf life of certain processed foods, like baked goods.  One of the products of hydrogenation is trans fats.

Research indicates that a diet high in trans fats can raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol, which increases the risk of clogged arteries.

I rarely advise people to ban specific foods from their diet.  Even the nutritionally devoid stuff has a place in a well-balanced eating life.  However in my opinion the types of foods that contain trans fats don’t have any place in a nourishing diet!

An easy way to spot a trans fat-containing food is to check the ingredient list.  If you see “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils, you’ve got some presence of trans fats.  Be wary of products that say “trans fat free” on the front of the package, the FDA allows this statement if the food contains less than 0.5 gram per serving.  They are also allowed a 20% margin of error, and their serving sizes are small.

There are some naturally occurring trans fats in dairy products.  We learned in our earlier fats discussion that we only want to consume a small amount of saturated animal fats anyways, so within a balanced diet natural trans fats aren’t really an issue.

This points to a larger lesson that a diet based on whole, minimally processed foods is best.  If you’re buying a packaged food look for one with a short ingredient list that has words that you can easily pronounce!

 
 Fat is an important part of a healthy diet.  Every single cell in our bodies has its own protective skin that is made out of fat.  Our body makes several fat-based hormones that are important for maintaining blood pressure, building muscle mass, and supporting a balanced metabolism.

There are a number of different kinds of fats in our food, and each one serves a slightly different purpose once it gets into our system.  Today we’ll talk about two main categories of fats: saturated and unsaturated.

Unsaturated fats are found mainly in plant foods such as nuts, avocados, and vegetable oils.  Fish is also a source of unsaturated fats.

Saturated fats are found mainly in animal foods such as meat and dairy.

An ideal diet has way more unsaturated (plant) fats than saturated (animal) fats.  Ten percent or less of your total fat intake should come from saturated fats.  In terms of a standard 2000 calorie/day diet that is just over 7 grams per day, which is about 1 Tablespoon of butter.  Eating a diet that is very high in saturated fat can increase your cholesterol and put you at risk for heart disease.

Here’s an easy way to remember this concept:  the less legs your fat source has, the healthier it is to eat!

  • Cows and pigs = 4 legs = Eat these less often
  • Chickens and turkeys = 2 legs = Eat these a little more often
  • Fish = No legs = Eat often
  • Vegetables = No legs = Eat often

I used this analogy with a client last year.  Afterwards we were discussing a jar of peanut butter.  I asked her how many legs a peanut has and she (rightfully) looked at me like I was insane.

Trans fats are another kind of fat you may have heard about.  We’ll talk about why it’s good to avoid these in tomorrow’s post.

Omega 3 fatty acids are a specific type of unsaturated fat.  We’ll talk about why they’re so hot right now in the post after that!