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Nutrition Fact: The way diet affects our health depends on our genetic make-up

Most of you probably already suspected this after knowing a friend or family member who can eat the same thing as you but it seems to affect them differently.  Well there’s many reasons for this– the amount and type of exercise they do, their food environment, overall diet, and also their genes! So how important are your genes in determining your overall health? Well we know there are certain genetic relationships to various disease outcomes, but with new research, we now also can tell if your genes can impact how you absorb certain nutrients or foods which can impact overall wellness over time.

Although this link between food and health is well known and documented, now that we have tools and data to interpret our genetic differences, it gives us a new dimension at looking at that link- one on a truly personalized nutritional level. This is exactly what nutrigenomics aims to study.

helix

 

What is Nutritigenomics?

  1. The study of how foods affect the expression of genetic information in an individual
  2. And how an individual’s genetic makeup metabolizes and responds to nutrients and bioactives

This just means that based on our different genetic make-up, food affects each of us differently and the degree to which diet influences the balance between healthy and disease states depends partially on an individual’s genetic makeup.

Nutritionists have recognized for years that individuals differ in their response to nutrient intakes. However, because we were not able to easily identify these differences for every individual before, the RDAs (recommended daily allowances) of common nutrients and other dietary intake advice were all based on population data that incorporates a certain margin of error to account for those variations in individuals genes. However, today with advances in science and the sequencing of the human genome, we now have the ability to do better– to make dietary recommendations and plans based on your OWN genes.

How does it work?

  1. Order a genetic test that uses saliva samples from a reputable lab. Most labs work directly with licensed professionals so you’ll usually order the tests through a licensed professional.
  2. The lab tests your saliva for at least 45 genetic markers currently known to affect aspects of your health including weight management and body composition, nutrient metabolism, eating habits, cardiometabolic health, food intolerances, and physical activity.
  3. The lab usually provides a detailed report to your healthcare provider within 2 weeks who then will help explain and interpret your individualized results to you

Why is this important? 

This information is powerful because it can help you make more accurate dietary choices for your own optimal health.  Let me give you an example of what I mean. So let’s say you have a certain genetic mutation in the FUT2 gene.  This means you may not absorb vitamin B12 as efficiently as those without that mutation. Since vitamin B12 is essential for many processes such as normal brain function and reproductive health, knowing you have this mutation in the FUT2 gene would mean you need to consume vitamin B12 in a different format that your body can more efficiently absorb. Making this small change through food or specific dietary supplements could in turn help reduce your risk for certain disease states related to deficient or inadequate vitamin B12 intake.  Research has shown that lower vitamin B12 levels is linked to increased risk of chronic conditions such as CVD and poor fertility.  This is just one example of how knowing what your genes are and making small changes to your diet can impact your long term health and wellness.  Today we can test for over 45 different gene mutations that may impact the way you absorb or don’t absorb certain nutrients needed for various functions in our body.

Recommendations:

The breakthroughs in this field are pretty exciting and is already helping people work towards their wellness goals in a more precise fashion than ever before.  As the science and our data related to nutrient/gene interactions increases, the results that nutrigenomics can provide will become even more powerful and I’m super excited to see this.

As the genetic testing companies continue to grow as a business, I highly recommend ordering tests through licensed professionals who can help to properly interpret and create a plan of action related to your nutritional needs based on your results.  Doing the test through licensed professionals will also ensure you get your test done at a lab who is a leader in the field of nutrigenomics research.  Currently, my practice, Crave Health, is partnering with the biotech company Nutrigenomix for our tests but we are always on the look out for other partners who can provide accurate and affordable pricing on this new emerging science. If you’re interested in learning how to eat according to your genes, please get in touch with me or another licensed professional!

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Nutrition Fact: 1 out of every 3 Children in the U.S. are Overweight or Obese.

Announcing Smash Your Food™ ..now in the Apple App Store! 

It’s so sad to think that today in the U.S., more than one third of all children and adolescents are overweight or obese.  Not only is childhood obesity linked to obesity as an adult, it also is linked to lower school performance during childhood.  I know it’s easy to think that obesity is a problem caused by one’s inability to control their eating; but particularly when it comes to kids, it’s hard to blame this problem on children alone.  Instead, multiple causes including the unhealthy food environment we live in today, growing portion sizes, and the lack of nutrition education of parents and kids when it comes to knowing what is in our food are to blame.

This is why I am so excited to announce the launch of Smash Your Food, an award-winning, educational game for the ipad that teaches kids to learn about the nutritional aspects of foods that contribute to excessive calories consumption and educates kids on how to  make better food choices at home and on-the-go.  I met the founders of Food’N’Me who came up with the idea of Smash Your Foods late last year and loved the concept and wanted to help out.  So , for the last few months, I’ve had the privilege to have been working on this project on the weekends to help the nutrition team with nutrition analysis and research prior to the game’s launch.  We’re also working on complementary e-books that will be released soon.

While the ipad game is catered for kids, it is also eye opening for adults.  For example, did you know that a fast food milkshake has three times as much sugar as a can of soda?  The game works by first calculating your max amount of salt, sugar, and oil per meal based on your gender, age, and level of physical activity and then compares your levels with what is in commonly eaten junk foods many Americans eat.  Before you SMASH the foods, you have to guess how much sugar, salt, and oil will come out of it.  The closer you get to the actual amounts, the more stars you get and the more foods you unlock!

Today, there are two versions of the game, a free version that let’s you test out the game by smashing five foods.  Then, the paid version which is just $2.99 and includes additional levels with about 40 foods all together.

Here’s 5 reasons why you should download this game today:

  1. This game is a top winner in Michelle’s Obama’s “Apps for Healthy Kids Contest”
  2. This game will help teach you and your kids about what is actually in some of the most common unhealthy foods we eat.
  3. This game will help inspire you and your kids to start making small steps towards eating healthier
  4. It’s super fun AND informative!
  5. It’s designed and approved by nutritionists and dietitians

Check it out for yourself at www.smashyourfood.com and feel free to leave any comments and feedback for us!  Also, like us on Facebook and help us spread the word so that we can help teach kids how to make better choices about what they eat today and in the future!

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Featured Food: Acai Berry

Acai Berry….superfood or not?

I just came back from visiting Brazil and had the chance to spend a few days in the Amazon Rainforest.  And I’m not going to lie, I was all about the acai berry when I was down there.  From acai berry sorbet on the beach to acai berry jam in the amazon, I was in love!  I even brought back acai berry jewelry!  When you’re in this region, it’s hard to ignore this amazing fruit, especially after all the hype you hear about it.  But does this superfood live up to all the hype back in the US?

So what is the acai berry? The acai berry comes from the acai palm tree (photographed below) which is native to Central and South America, particularly in the Amazon region.  The fruit is small, round and the pulp is a black-purple color.  The seed makes up about 80% of the fruit and the remaining is a viscous pulp that can be eaten raw or as a juice.  The fruit pulp contains about 4% protein and 12% lipids, with the majority of lipids being a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid. Not only is the acai berry a complete food containing all the macronutrients, additionally, they are rich in nutrients like vitamins A, C, and E, calcium, phosphorus, iron, thiamine, and are most known for containing antioxidants like polyphenols and anthocyanins.

What are the Health Benefits of Acai Berry?

Ever since Oprah and Dr. Oz presented the acai berry as a “super food” the food industry has been all over trying to make all sorts of acai products with numerous health claims.  Unfortunately, many of the health claims are not true, at least not from any scientific studies done so far.  That being said, the one health benefit we do know is true about acai berries is it’s antioxidant power.  Animal studies and  in vitro studies have found that acai berry is a very powerful antioxidant.  Research has shown that anthocyanins and polyphenols in the acai berry are  antioxidants that help defend the body against life’s stressors. They also play a role in the body’s cell protection system. Free radicals are harmful byproducts produced by the body. Eating a diet rich in antioxidants may interfere with aging and the disease process by neutralizing free radicals.  Antioxidants in general may help reduce the risk of some diseases, such as heart disease and cancer by lessening the destructive power of free radicals in the body.  

In addition, an animal study also found that regular consumption of acai berries improved lipid profiles in rabbits and rats, which could  help reduce risks of heart disease.  However, this has not been tested in humans yet so is still a bit of a stretch to claim this as a health benefit just yet.  I did find one study conducted in humans which was a pilot trial with only 10 participants aimed at looking at whether or not acai berry could improve the metabolic profile of overweight adults.  This study found that participants that consumed the acai berry pulp regularly had improved cholesterol, triglyceride, and insulin levels after just 30 days.  This is a promising study but unfortunately because it was done in such a small sample and specific subset of individuals of overweight and unhealthy adults, the results are not generalizable to the public– so again we don’t know for sure how beneficial the acai berry can be in lowering cholesterol and triglycerides in humans just yet.  However, it does prove the need for additional research to explore these and other potential health benefits in humans.

Another study actually found that red wine, pomegranate, grape juice and blueberry juice actually have higher antioxidant power than acai juice.  So just remember that all the health claims made by acai berry product manufacturers like helps fight heart disease, helps people lose weight, prevents aging, stops cancer, improves sexual performance, improves digestion, improves sleep, improves arthritis, and improves general health,  are mostly not yet proven scientifically in humans yet or can be  achieved from antioxidants from other berries such as blueberries, pomograntes, etc.

Source: acaiberryeducation.com

How to eat it?

I enjoyed eating my fair share of acai berry when I was traveling in Brazil, but until the health benefits of the açaí berry are scientifically proven, it seems more reasonable, cheaper, and safer to get your antioxidants from other fruit and vegetable sources rich in antioxidants like blueberries, pomegranates, strawberries, etc that are more readily available in the U.S.

Until further research is done, I would avoid any acai berry supplements since they have not yet been studied extensively and we do not yet know if the health benefits from the acai berry resembles that from supplements.  Additionally, I would definitely be suspicious of “free-trial offers” for acai products.

However, if you do want to try some acai berry products, here’s a few suggestions:

  1. Buy freeze-dried acai berry and use in smoothies.  Here’s a recipe you can use.
  2. Eat acai berry as part of flavored products like ice cream, sorbets, and jellies.  Each brand and food product has different amounts and forms of acai berry in their products so keep in mind this may not be the best method of getting your antioxidants.
  3. As a juice– but remember some juices are better than others.  Make sure to read the ingredients and nutrition label.  Many are mixed with other juices and contain a lot of added sugars which would generally cancel out the benefit from the antioxidants of the acai berry.  So if you’re not drinking it just for the flavor, make sure to read the labels to ensure you minimize the added sugar and other ingredients.
  4. I also started seeing chocolate covered acai berry on the market.  I took a look at the label and it seems that they don’t always use the actual fruit but they use the acai berry fruit juice or pulp mixed with other juices, then diped in chocolate.  So again, seems like all the processing and added ingredients may outweigh any benefit received from the antioxidants.

Overall, my recommendation is to get your antioxidants from other berries that are easily available and cheaper in the U.S. until 1.) more research is done and in fact shows that acai berries are indeed much more beneficial to your health than other fruits 2.) fresh or freeze dried acai berry is more readily available in the U.S.

If you like acai berry products, that’s fine, but just make sure you’re eating those products for the taste and flavor and not just for the health benefits since often times these products contain lot’s of added sugars and ingredients.  And last, if you go to South America, enjoy all the acai berry you can get :).  Natural, fresh, and tastes so good!

Me in Rio having fresh Acai sorbet 🙂

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Nutrition Fact: More than 25% of Americans are Vitamin D Insufficient

Are YOU Getting Enough Vitamin D?

It seems like Vitamin D has been the “fashionable” vitamin over the past few years mainly because there has been a trend in research suggesting vitamin D deficiency/insufficiency may play a role in various diseases other than just bone health.  Additionally, while the the Institute of Medicine (IOM) increased their recommendations and upper limits for vitamin D for optimum bone health in 2010,  other experts don’t agree with those recommendations and more and more research is showing increased intake may protect against several chronic diseases.  So, with all the controversy and inconclusive evidence out there how do you tease out what you really need to know about Vitamin D?  Let’s start by understanding what vitamin D is and where you get it from.     

What is Vitamin D? 

Vitamin D is a family of fat-soluble vitamins which functions to regulate calcium and phosphorus homeostasis.  Additional functions include:

  1.  Helps maintain bone health
  2. Aids in cell differentiation of hemotapoietic and epithelial cells
  3. Enhances immunity
  4. Helps reduce inflammation
  5. Aids in regulation of blood pressure and insulin

Aside from these known functions Vitamin D plays, new research suggests that vitamin D status may also be linked to chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, cognitive decline, depression, diabetes, pregnancy complications, and some autoimmune diseases.  Although the link between Vitamin D and these chronic diseases is still inconclusive, it’s not surprising that there has been a dramatic increase in sales in Vitamin D supplements and manufactures of the vitamin dues to evidence of protection against certain chronic diseases.

Where do I get Vitamin D from? 

Vitamin D is mostly obtained through skin exposure to UV B light where it is converted to the active form for Vitamin D (D3) in our skin.   Some Vitamin D is also obtained from the diet in fortified foods such as milk, cereals, and juices as well as some natural foods such as some fish (i.e. salmon and sardines) and liver.  But more recently many have been receiving vitamin D from supplements which either come in the form of D2 or D3.

Because most of our Vitamin D supply comes from sunlight, there are certain populations that are at risk of deficiency because they convert less sunlight to Vitamin D from their skin.  This includes:

  • Those with darker skin tones.  The increased melanin reduces conversion of sunlight to Vitamin D.
  • Those that don’t expose skin in the sunlight or wear high levels of sunblock all the time.  Clothing and sunblock inhibit the conversion of Vitamin D from sunlight.
  • Those that live in geographies that have less sun exposure.
What are the recommendations for Vitamin D intake?  

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) who puts out the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) for nutrients makes the following recommendations for Vitamin D:

Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Vitamin D
Set by the Institute of Medicine
Life Stage  Age  Males
mcg/day (IU/day)
Females
mcg/day (IU/day)
Infants 0-6 months 400 IU (AI) 400 IU (AI)
Infants 6-12 months 400 IU (AI) 400 IU (AI)
Children 1-3 years 600 IU 600 IU
Children 4-8 years 600 IU 600 IU
Children 9-13 years 600 IU 600 IU
Adolescents 14-18 years 600 IU 600 IU
Adults 19-50 years 600 IU 600 IU
Adults 51-70 years 600 IU 600 IU
Adults 71 years and older 800 IU 800 IU
Pregnancy all ages 600 IU
Breast-feeding all ages 600 IU

Credit: Linus Pauling Institute on Micronutrients 

The IOM also set the tolerable Upper Limits for Children 9 years and older at 4,000 IU/ day to prevent any toxicity from over consumption of Vitamin D.  It’s important to keep in mind that these are conservative recommendations based only on the IOM’s review of the research related to optimum bone health.  Many other experts are now recommending increased intake of vitamin D in light of new research linking increased Vitamin D status to lower risk of certain chronic diseases and based on data from a NHANES study showing that about 30% of Americans are Vitamin D deficient or at risk of being deficient according to IOM serum Vitamin D levels for optimum bone health.  I personally was tested two years ago and was severely deficient as well.  In order also project against some chronic diseases, some experts such as the Vitamin D Council are now recommending as much as 5,000 IU/day for adults.

SO WHAT DO I RECOMMEND?

I think it’s still too early to be recommending everyone to start taking high dose Vitamin D supplements to protect against various chronic diseases, however, there is promising research for additional benefits with increased Vitamin D coupled with the fact that many Americans are in fact not getting enough Vitamin D from sunlight or the diet so I would recommend the following to increase your intake of Vitamin D:

  1. Get tested.  Testing your Vitamin D level is a simple blood test and especially if your insurance covers it, I would recommend it.  That will give you a basis on how much Vitamin D supplements, if any you really need.  There are also tests you can do at home with a simple blood pinch that are fairly inexpensive with decent accuracy to give you some idea of your Vitamin D levels.
  2. Try consuming more Vitamin D rich foods from your diet.  Natural is ALWAYS better so make sure you’re including enough milk, salmon, and other fortified foods in your diet to help increase your Vitamin D intake.
  3. Try to expose enough skin (arms and/or legs) to at least 5-15 minutes of sunlight twice a day.  That amount of time without sunblock should provide you with more than enough Vitamin D while still minimizing risk to harmful side effects of sun exposure.  Additional plus is that you can’t get Vitamin D toxicity from Vitamin D synthesized from sunlight, only from too much supplement or intake from the diet.
  4. If you do wish to take supplements, or if your doctor recommends it, make sure you take Vitamin  D3 over D2 which research indicates may be up to three times more potent.

After I finished my prescription dose of Vitamin D to get me back to a healthy blood level,  my doctor recommends to get between 1,000- 2,000 IU/ day so I eat fortified foods and take a 1,000 IU supplement daily.  That recommendation is based on the fact that I don’t get much sun exposure living in Seattle, have darker skin, and that my levels were low.  So before you start popping 1,000 IU or 2,000 IU Vitamin D supplements per day, I would recommend you get your levels tested and try moderate sun exposure and diet before you choose supplements.  That will prevent any potential toxicity from too much Vitamin D intake and will save you money…and who doesn’t need to save money right?

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Nutrition Fact: Not All Calories are Equal, Especially Liquid Calories.

Why liquid calories are different… 

Ever heard that a calorie is a calorie and that weight loss/gain is simply a matter of calories in versus calories out?  Well, while that theoretically is true, the reality is that our bodies process calories from different sources differently, and liquid calories are no exception.  The mechanisms for controlling thirst and hunger differ in our bodies.  So while liquid calories may quench our thirst, they do very little when it comes to curbing our hunger.

One of the reasons liquid calories act differently is because they travel faster through our intestinal tract which affects the nutrient absorption rate leading to altered effects on satiety hormones.  What does this mean?  Basically that 100 calories from a soda will not curb your hunger as well as 100 calories from something like an apple or other solid foods in general.

Ok but why is this important?

  1. Liquid calories add up fast and don’t keep you full! A 12 oz of cola contains 140 calories; A 12 oz. latte made with whole milk contains 180 calories; 16 oz. ice cream milkshake has 625 calories. But because they don’t provide the same satiety as solid calories, you usually just end up consuming more calories than you need. (Remember that every 3,500 calories eaten above your needs = 1 pound of fat gained)
  2. Liquid calories can lead to increased weight gain.  A recent Harvard Nurse’s Health study of more than 50,000 women over eight years found that those who increased their intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, such as sodas or fruit punch, from one per week to one or more per day consumed an average of 358 extra calories per day and gained a significant amount of weight. And vice versa, the women who reduced their intake cut their calories by an average of 319 and gained less weight.
  3. Most liquid calories are high in sugar!  

    Drinks

    Estimated Sugar Content

    Soda (8 oz) 22 g
    Fruit Smoothie (10 oz) 34-50 g
    Sports Drinks (8 oz) 7g
    Fruit Juice (8 oz) 24 g
    Energy Drinks (12 oz) 42 g

I know when you’re working all day or on the go, you need something sweet and caffeinated right?  Grabbing a latte or soda is just the easy thing to do.  But if you want to avoid liquid calories creeping up on you, here’s a few ideas for healthy alternatives or substitutions to try in situations like that:

  • Instead of soda, try sparkling water and squeeze a slice of lemon, lime, an orange, or even add a hint of fruit juice for a lower calorie, less sugar sweet alternative.  Added bonus, sparkling water does not contain phosphoric acid like most sodas which is bad for your bones.  
  • Instead of a normal latte, use soy or non-fat milk instead for a lower calorie drink or just coffee or tea and go easy on the sugar or sweetener.  
  • If you like drinking alcoholic cocktails, try ordering a glass of wine or lite beer instead for a lower calorie alcoholic beverage
  • When it comes to smoothies, just order the smallest portion to keep calories under control.  Usually smoothies come in 16oz servings or more so go for the half portions.  
  • And remember, water is always your best option to quench your thirst.  Your body needs 8-10 glasses a day!  

So next time you’re debating whether that drink is worth it, think twice before you drink those liquid calories =)

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