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.

 
Dark leafy greens like kale, spinach, collards, and chard contain a wealth of nutrients that can help prevent disease.  Greens only contain around 30 calories per cooked cup, and 3-5 grams of fiber.  That means adding leafy greens into your diet can add a lot of bulk to your plate, and make you feel full longer.  Here are some of the ways a diet rich in leafy greens can help you avoid chronic disease:

Fight heart disease.  Greens are rich in folate, a nutrient that can help prevent arterial plaque development.  Folate is also necessary for healthy red blood cell growth, normal nerve function, and fetal development in pregnant women.  Beans are another great source of folate.

Keep your nerves and muscles in good working order.  Leafy greens are a good source of magnesium.  Many people’s diets are chronically low in this mineral.  In magnesium deficiency our nerves become over-stimulated, which can result in muscle pain, cramps, and spasms.

Lower your cancer risk.  Cruciferous greens like kale and other cabbages are rich in sulforaphane, the same compound in broccoli that could reduce your risk for cancer.  Several studies have shown that people who regularly consume sulforaphane-rich foods have a decreased cancer risk.

It’s best to cook leafy greens for a short amount of time to maintain their nutrient content.  The trick is to cook them long enough to increase the digestibility, but not so long that you cook all the life out of them!  Use your visual judgment; you want your cooked greens to be green- not brown.  A light steaming, pan sauté, or massaging greens with an acidic ingredient usually works best.

Here’s a good recipe for Massaged Kale salad from Cookus Interruptus.

Here’s where you can purchase an “Eat More Kale” t-shirt to show your love for greens!
 
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Many food labels claim that the product within is “high in antioxidants,” but what does that even mean?  Is that a good thing?  Today we’ll talk about what an antioxidant is and what it does in the body.  Tomorrow we’ll talk about where you can find antioxidants, because that’s a topic unto itself!

There are a number of different antioxidants, some are vitamins (like Vitamin E) and some are plant chemicals (like flavonoids).  We can make some antioxidants on our own, and others we get from food.  It’s a good idea to eat antioxidants to add to the team of those that we make on our own.

For every task in our bodies there are certain elements that must be in balance, and when that balance gets out of whack the job does not get done.  You could compare this to the task of washing greasy hands.  Let’s say you just fixed your bike chain.  In order to get the grease off your hands you need both water and soap.  If you have too much soap and not enough water you’ll end up with a soapy mess.   If you have too much water and not enough soap you’ll still have grease on your hands, they’ll just be wet.

Instead of soap and water, the elements we’re talking about here are antioxidants and free radicals.  Free radicals are molecules that bounce around creating all sorts of havoc and damage.  We create free radicals all the time just as a result of natural processes in the body.  Antioxidants step in and stop free radicals from doing damage.

When there are more free radicals doing damage than there are antioxidants stopping them, it results in stress on the body.  This type of stress can initiate many diseases including heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.  Obviously these health issues are far more serious than some greasy hands.

As I mentioned tomorrow we’ll talk in depth about which specific foods have antioxidants, but there’s a simple way to find them too.  Virtually all fruits, vegetables, and spices have antioxidants in them- so head to your produce section and stock up!

 
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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…

 
Jogging outdoors is a good choice for aerobic activity because it’s free, and you can do it anywhere.  However if you’ve never done it before it can be quite intimidating.  Also if you over-exert yourself when you begin jogging it could result in nothing but discouragement and injuries.  So where’s a good place to begin?

Here’s what expert running coach Laura Houston had to say:

I would advise them to start with a walking program if they are completely sedentary (i.e., no other aerobic activities like biking). When they are ready to incorporate running, start with maybe a minute of running, followed by 5-10 minutes walking, and gradually build up the running time, while decreasing the walking time. Always listen to their bodies!

Laura is a certified ChiRunning Instructor, which is a type of running and walking that emphasizes minimal impact on the joints.  You can find out more about what she does at her website, Feel the Run.

Laura brings up the good point that walking can be great exercise on its own.  Just make sure that you’re walking at a pace that is aerobic for you.  Remember from our discussion on exercise we had the other day that aerobic activity is something that gets your heart rate up, gets you breathing faster, and makes you feel warm and sweaty.  I used to coach for an after-school running program for children, and we would call it “walking with purpose.”

If nothing else walking and running is a good way to get outdoors on a nice day and relax your brain a bit.  The next time you’ve got nice weather where you live, give it a try!

If you want to learn more about ChiRunning, check out their website here.
 
I get asked this question a lot at 5focus: how many times per week should I work out?  As with most things, it depends on what your goal is.

The USDA recommends 30 minutes of moderate physical activity 5-7 days per week.  The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, which is essentially the same thing (30 minutes x 5 days per week).  The CDC also recommends strength training two times weekly; we’ll talk more about types of exercise below.  Both of these recommendations are only for prevention of chronic disease, such as heart disease or diabetes.

For weight loss, most research shows that 60-90 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity every single day is necessary.  Research also shows that doing short bouts of exercise multiple times throughout the day is just as effective as doing it all at once.  If you feel like you can’t commit to 60 minutes at once, split it up into 10- or 20-minute workouts and spread it throughout your day.

A well-balanced exercise routine consists of three components:  aerobic activity, resistance training, and stretching.  Let’s talk about why each one is important!

Aerobic activity is vital for a strong heart and lungs.  Aerobic exercise is anything that gets your heart rate up, increases your breathing rate, and elevates your core temperature (makes you a little sweaty).  This could include jogging, hiking, dance- there are a lot of possibilities.

Resistance training is necessary for joint and bone health.  It involves adding some sort of resistance in addition to your body weight in order to strengthen your muscles.  This could include weight lifting, resistance band training, or swimming.

Stretching is essential to prevent injury during other types of activities.  It could involve either a stretching routine or a yoga class.  Stretches need to be held for 1-2 minutes to have any sort of meaningful effect.

I forgot a fourth component to a healthy exercise routine: having fun!  Whatever you do to maintain your physical health, make sure it’s something you enjoy.

I wrote an article on my old blog that gives guidelines for choosing an exercise activity that’s right for you, check it out 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!