Gut health: Exploring the rainforest within

Imagine a lush tropical rain forest filled with a rich diversity of plant and animal life. This represents the complexity of our gut microbiome, an ecosystem residing in our digestive tract. Scientists are only beginning to unravel the far-reaching effects of gut health.

With surprising roles ranging from influencing our waistline and mood to promoting dental health and a clear complexion, the microbiome is a promising new frontier in medicine.

Increased awareness of how certain foods keep gut flora flourishing has sparked shifts in grocery store shopping and there’s a rising demand for probiotic-powered foods. Here’s what you need to know to nurture your gut microbiome.

Know the difference between probiotics and prebiotics

This dynamic duo has a harmonious relationship in the gut, working together to promote digestive health. Prebiotics are power food for probiotics. Probiotics are beneficial, living organisms that improve our immune system by helping to crowd out bacteria that can make us sick.

In addition, probiotics enhance absorption of nutrients from food and even help make energy-producing B vitamins.

Prebiotics are fibers in food that resist digestion in the upper digestive tract but are used as fuel by probiotics in the lower digestive tract. Probiotics rely on a steady supply of fuel from prebiotics so they can flourish. The best way to ensure that your probiotic population is happy and well-fed is to load up on fiber-rich plant foods.

Top sources of prebiotics include bananas, garlic, onions, leeks, artichokes, asparagus, whole grains and legumes like lentils, beans and peas. Be sure to gradually incorporate these foods into your diet and drink plenty of water to help your digestive system adjust to the increased fiber intake as it helps move things along.

Separate health from hype when shopping

Foods that are cultured or fermented naturally contain probiotics, but food companies are adding probiotics to processed foods such as energy bars and frozen yogurt. The potency of probiotic cultures can be drastically weakened when they are removed from their original source and added into these processed foods.

Kefir
Kefir has diverse probiotic strains that may improve lactose digestion among those who are lactose intolerant.

Sip the champagne of dairy

Cultured dairy products such as yogurt and kefir reign supreme as the most potent probiotic sources. Known as the champagne of cultured dairy because of its slight fizziness, kefir is a low-lactose, creamy drink made by adding “kefir grains” to milk, which cause a very unique fermenting process. 

Originating centuries ago in Eastern Europe, keifer has only recently become commercialized in the United States. While yogurt and kefir both contain beneficial bacteria, kefir hosts a more diverse population of probiotic strains, meaning it could offer added probiotic benefits, such as improving lactose digestion among those who are lactose intolerant.

Check the yogurt container

To make sure your yogurt really does have probiotic power, check for the “Live and Active Cultures” seal. Yogurts that say “heat treated after culturing” on the label mean the yogurt was pasteurized after the live strains were added, which deactivates the beneficial bacteria.

Check sugar content since sugar can work against probiotic benefits. Flavored yogurts that list sugar as the first or second ingredient can pack more sugar than a candy bar.

Choose food over supplements

Think twice before choosing a supplement over food. The journey probiotic supplements make from the lab to the gut is long and full of variables. The best and least expensive option for promoting good gut health is to enjoy foods that naturally contain live cultures.

Chocolate-covered mindfulness

fter celebrating love by indulging in creamy, dreamy chocolate over Valentine’s Day, many will struggle to tame their sweet tooth.  Those few divine pieces of chocolate left in the red heart-shaped box are hard to resist and leave you wanting more long after they’re gone.   Here’s some great news: You can have your chocolate and eat it too! In fact, it’s entirely possible to have less chocolate while enjoying it even more.  This is where the art of mindfulness come in.  Mindful eating is about slowing down and fully engaging your senses for a transcendent experience that derives maximum pleasure from food.  Here are three tips to heighten your chocolate satisfaction while cultivating mindfulness:

You Deserve the Best

High-quality chocolate will reward you with the richest and most complex flavors to revel in.  A smooth, shiny surface, even coloring and a clean break with no crumbling when the chocolate is snapped are just a few qualities of premium chocolate.  As with wine, the geographical origin of the cocoa beans used to make the chocolate will influence the flavors.  Commercial chocolates are highly processed and usually made with subpar ingredients, including corn syrup and artificial flavors, making them a less healthful choice.  While premium chocolate may cost a little more, treating yourself to it is a splurge you deserve! 

Dark chocolate contains flavonoids, powerful antioxidants that can help lower blood pressure, protect the… Click To Tweet

Delight In Dark Chocolate

Stirring the souls of chocolate lovers is cutting-edge research demonstrating the health benefits of chocolate.  Dark chocolate contains flavonoids, powerful antioxidants that can help lower blood pressure, protect the brain and increase blood circulation.  The darker the chocolate, the more flavonoids, therefore milk chocolate has minimal antioxidant activity and white chocolate has none.  Choose dark chocolate with at least 70% cacao or cocoa solids for the most antioxidant power and note that high-quality dark chocolate will contain only one type of fat, cocoa butter.  Chocolate with a higher cacao content has less sugar, making it easier to be satisfied with less as added sugar in chocolate can mask other flavors and leave you craving more.

Choose dark chocolate with at least 70% cacao or cocoa solids for the most antioxidant power! Click To Tweet

Slowly Savor

Quickly biting into chocolate and swallowing without fully experiencing its pleasures is a disservice to your senses. The essence of mindfulness is exploring details such as the aroma of the chocolate cupped in your hand and the smooth, sheen appearance.  Allow the chocolate to slowly melt on your tongue and swirl it around in your mouth to bathe all of your taste buds.  Note the texture as it may be silky, velvety or creamy.  The longer you allow the chocolate to melt, the more flavor notes will emerge.  Just like a fine wine, premium chocolate has different flavor stages including a beginning, middle and a finish.  Enjoy becoming a chocolate connoisseur and remember that no matter what you’re eating, the mindfulness skills you build will carry over! 

Pumpkin recipe possibilities

Each fall, a frenzy of pumpkin products become available in just about as many forms as one can imagine. From the long-awaited pumpkin spice latte that has come to signify the start of fall to pumpkin spice M&Ms, fall’s signature squash takes the food market by storm.

How do these pumpkin-themed treats capture that festive fall feeling? Surprisingly, they often do so without any real pumpkin! Many of these pumpkin-themed products contain pumpkin spice flavoring.

That’s right, there’s no pumpkin in your pumpkin spice latte (quite a revelation to many). Go ahead and indulge in these seasonal treats in moderation, but don’t miss out on the nutritional perks of real pumpkin recipes!

Many popular Fall pumpkin treats contain no real pumpkin and instead contain pumpkin spice flavoring Click To Tweet

Packed with nutrients like potassium help regulate blood pressure and beta-carotene promotes good vision and a glowing complexion.

One cup of pumpkin has 141 percent of your daily vitamin A and 12 percent of your fiber! Here are some pumpkin-perfect recipes that are a great way enjoy this earthy native North American gourd.

Pumpkin Soup
Pumpkin soup
If you want to up your presentation, you can pour your pumpkin soup into a carved-out pumpkin.

Pumpkin is a natural addition to cool-weather soup, imparting a burnt-orange autumn color, velvety-smooth thickness and rich flavor. Curry and pumpkin is a match made in heaven flavor pairing. Canned pumpkin is available year-round and is excellent in pumpkin soup, but if you want to create your own pumpkin puree, here’s how:

Scrape seeds and pulp from a couple of small pumpkins cut into chunks, roast at 350°F for about 45 minutes or until pumpkin is fork tender, remove the softened skin and puree in a food processor. For a darling presentation, serve pumpkin soup in hollowed-out petite pumpkin halves, top with a dollop of light sour cream and chopped chives.

Pumpkin-Protein Pudding
Pumpkin protein pudding
This pumpkin pudding recipe is simple on ingredients and low in calories.

This pudding will satisfy your pumpkin pie craving without a hefty calorie load! Simply blend together 6 ounces of low-fat vanilla Greek yogurt, 1/4 cup pumpkin puree, a dash (1/8 tsp) of cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg.

The protein from Greek yogurt and filling fiber from the pumpkin gives this pudding major staying power. Top with 1 tbsp crushed cinnamon graham cracker or toasted chopped pecans for a delicate crunch.

Shopping tip: When buying canned pumpkin, be sure and look for 100% pure pumpkin as many shoppers pick up sugar loaded canned pumpkin pie mix by mistake.

Pumpkin-Pie Oatmeal

Add festive fall flavor to your morning bowl of oatmeal by stirring 1/4 cup pureed pumpkin, 1/4 tsp pumpkin pie spice, 1/4 tsp vanilla extract and 1 tbsp maple syrup or brown sugar into one cup prepared oatmeal. Top with 1 tbsp toasted nuts.

Pumpkin-licious Smoothie 

Jazz up your smoothie routine by adding a dollop of canned pumpkin with a dash of nutmeg and cinnamon. Blend together with vanilla yogurt and ice for a scrumptious smoothie.

And now for the finishing touch that can be sprinkled on top of each of the above recipes or seasoned for a yummy crunchy-munchy snack.

Roasted Pepitas
Roasted pumpkin seeds
Pumpkin seeds or pepitas are a good source of zinc and magnesium.

Pepitas are green-shelled pumpkin seeds that are more delicate and less chewy than the unshelled pumpkin seeds thanks to the husky outer layer being removed. Pumpkin seeds are a top source of minerals like skin-renewing zinc and heart-healthy magnesium.

To roast, preheat oven to 325°F, toss 1 cup pepitas with 1 tsp olive oil and layer onto a large baking sheet. Roast for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden.

Go sweet or savory with your seed seasonings by immediately tossing the seeds with a tsp of cinnamon and tbsp of sugar or 1/2 tsp smoked paprika and 1/4 tsp of cayenne.

Paint your plate with phytochemical foods

Color is a key element of the full sensory experience of eating and plays a big role in making food attractive and desirable. That’s why it makes perfect sense that nature’s most nutrient-dense foods are designed to be colorful.

Food has the amazing power to influence everything from your mood to overall health. You can maximize your body’s potential for radiantly-good health by fueling your body with a rainbow of plants. You will feel light and energized from eating this way instead of having that sleepy, sluggish feeling a “beige” diet of processed, refined foods leaves you with.

Think of your plate as a canvas; add splashes of vibrant, vivid colors to optimize nutrient density and to shower your body with the entire phytochemical spectrum.

What are phytochemicals, you ask? Phytochemicals are plant compounds that provide cell-protective antioxidant power and impart different colors to plant foods. That’s why it’s so important to think in terms of eating from the rainbow. More than 10,000 phytochemicals have been found and scientists speculate there are several thousand more yet to be discovered. 

blueberries-in-cartons
Blueberries get their color from anthocyanins, which help protect the brain from oxidative stress.

Plants produce phytochemicals to protect themselves from environmental threats such as the sun’s ultraviolet rays. When we eat plant foods, they impart these protective properties to our bodies and offer disease prevention in a number of complex ways.

For example, lycopene is responsible for the red coloring of watermelon and tomatoes and offers skin protection from the sun, while anthocyanins give blueberries their deep-blue hue and can help slow age-related memory loss by protecting the brain from oxidative stress. Lutein and zeaxanthin provide emerald green coloring to broccoli, kale and spinach and play a key role in maintaining healthy vision.

Phytochemical foods exert their antioxidant power by shielding our cells from the damaging effects of free radicals. Each phytochemical has a fancy scientific name, but all you have to remember is to eat the rainbow in plant foods every day and you will get the full spectrum of phytochemicals.

Phytochemical foods exert their antioxidant power by shielding our cells from the damaging effects of free… Click To Tweet

Colorful ideas for painting your plate:

  • Swap pale iceberg lettuce for dark-green arugula or spinach. The richer the color, the more phytochemicals present. 
  • Stir berries (fresh or frozen) into cereal, oatmeal or yogurt. For an even greater antioxidant boost, eat a mix of berries. Shopping tip: Frozen produce is often more nutrient-dense than fresh. 
  • Jazz up salads by adding orange or grapefruit segments, apple or nectarine slices, sliced beets, dried cherries or pomegranate seeds.
  • Add grated carrots and zucchini to pasta sauce, turkey burgers or meatloaf for moisture and a pop of color.
  • Stuff color into sandwiches with sliced apple, avocado, cucumber, spinach and/or sprouts. 
  • Spread creamy avocado onto whole-wheat toast and top with slices of juicy tomato for a plant-powered snack.
  • Mix fresh herbs and chopped tomato or red bell pepper into your scrambled eggs.

Eating clean by going green

The energetic and radiant hue of emerald green makes it easy to become obsessed with the color. Green also happens to be the color of many in-season foods. So why not go ahead and add splashes of green to your plate?

Bright green is symbolic of in-season green-hued foods bursting with flavor and nutrients. You will be well on your way to “cleaning” your diet by incorporating these free-radical absorbing foods.

Kari Kooi, a registered dietician at Houston Methodist, says “eating clean is a buzzword for a wholesome, unprocessed diet that drastically limits ultra-processed foods made from inferior ingredients while embracing whole foods like fruits and vegetables.”  

There’s no better time to start eating clean and green. Here are five green powerhouse foods to help brighten your plate.

Asparagus

Looking for a natural anti-ager? Emerging in the springtime, these green spears offer a bounty of nutrients. Asparagus is high in glutathione, an antioxidant that can help reduce skin damage from the sun. Additionally, asparagus contains the most folate of any vegetable. Folate plays a vital role in heart health and the prevention of birth defects.

Avocado

Add some thin slices of smooth avocado to your sandwich or salad without feeling guilty. The monounsaturated fat in avocado is what’s mostly responsible for avocado’s super food status. This type of happy fat can help drive down levels of bad cholesterol. 

Brussels sprouts

These baby cabbages are loaded with antioxidants and filling fiber. A cruciferous vegetable, Brussels sprouts contain powerful, cancer-fighting sulfur compounds that are responsible for their pungent aroma. These green jewels take on a whole new flavor and crispy texture when roasted in the oven.

Eating clean means eliminating ultra-processed foods and embracing whole foods like fruits and vegetables Click To Tweet
Fresh Kale
Did you know kale is a better source of calcium than spinach? This is due to its lower levels of oxalic acid.

Kale

This beautiful ruffled green is being called “the queen of greens.” Kale is brimming with eye-nourishing carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, a pair of phytochemicals that has been shown to prevent macular degeneration and cataracts. Additionally, kale is a better source of calcium than spinach as it has lower levels of oxalic acid, a compound that interferes with calcium absorption.

Kiwifruit

Rich in vitamin C, potassium and fiber, kiwis make a perfectly portable snack. Just slice a kiwi in half and scoop out the emerald flesh with a spoon. You will dazzle your body with nutrients. This sweet and tart fruit has a unique taste, with flavors reminiscent of strawberry, banana, melon, pineapple, and citrus

Eating pretty: foods for radiant skin

When it comes to a glowing complexion, nourishing your skin from the inside-out is just as important as what you put on your skin. Eating the right foods can help protect skin from oxidative stress that contributes to the aging process, clear up acne and brighten a dull complexion. Here are some ingredients for attaining radiant skin.

Watermelon

As the name implies, this juicy, super-sweet fruit is over 90 percent water and keeps skin smooth and firm by hydrating cells so they’re plump and full. Watermelon is rich in lycopene, an antioxidant that gives watermelon its pink hue and provides protection against damaging ultraviolet rays. Enjoy a watermelon salad that’s bursting with flavor by simply cutting the watermelon into cubes and combining with spicy arugula, thinly sliced red onion, red-wine vinegar, a splash of olive oil and a sprinkle of crumbled goat cheese.

Lycopene in watermelon provides protection against damaging ultraviolet rays Click To Tweet

Pepitas

Pepitas are hulled pumpkin seeds that are loaded with zinc, a mineral that’s involved in many biochemical processes throughout the body, including skin-cell renewal. A great addition to a homemade trail mix or sprinkled into oatmeal or yogurt, these green seeds have a delicate crunch and a nutty, slightly-sweet flavor. To deepen the flavor of pepitas, stir frequently in a small skillet over medium heat until golden-brown.

Pineapple

This sweet, juicy tropical fruit is chock-full of vitamin C, an antioxidant that plays a strong role in the production of collagen. Collagen is a protein that is essential for keeping skin firm and elastic. Select pineapple with a sweet fragrance at the stem end and make sure it is heavy for its size. Create a dazzling salad that’s brimming with vitamin C by mixing pineapple with other tropical fruits such as kiwi, mango and papaya.

Carrots

If you want a summer tan, crunching on carrots can give you a sun-kissed look without spray tans or damaging sun exposure. The carotenoid antioxidants in carrots, including beta-carotene, give carrots their deep orange coloring and provide a subtle natural tan by the pigments getting deposited in the skin. Beta-carotene keeps skin youthful by targeting and repairing skin damage as well as protecting skin from the ravages of excess sun exposure. Snack on baby carrots dipped in protein-rich hummus or almond butter. Shredded raw carrots add a sweet flavor and bright pop of orange to salads.

Here are three great recipes you can try that incorporate these ingredients.

Almond Butter Log

Almonds make up the base of this creamy recipe.
Almonds make up the base of this creamy recipe.

Time: 50 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 1 ripe banana
  • 2-3 cups raw almonds
  • Cinnamon
  • Almond milk

Instructions:

  1. Blend the raw almonds in a blender or food processor.
  2. Stop and stir the nuts every 5 minutes. During the process, the almonds will have the appearance of crumbs but be patient; this can take up to 30 minutes.
  3. Continue blending until the consistency is even.
  4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  5. Peel one ripe banana and cut down the center as if you were making a banana split.
  6. Place the banana on a baking sheet line with aluminum foil, and fill with 1-2 teaspoons of the homemade almond butter.
  7. Gently press the sides together and wrap with foil.
  8. Bake for 15 minutes.
  9. Garnish with a sprinkle of cinnamon.
  10. Let the banana log cool on baking sheet before eating.

Spicy Arugula Watermelon Salad

Watermelon can serve as an excellent base for a salad.
Watermelon pairs well with salad greens.

Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients:

  • ½ giant chilled watermelon, cubed or thinly sliced
  • 1 peeled cucumber, diced
  • 1 red tomato, diced
  • 1 yellow tomato, diced
  • 2 tablespoons red onion, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons tarragon leaves
  • 2 tablespoons chives, thinly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons basil leaves, cut into strips
  • 2 tablespoons cilantro
  • 1 avocado, diced
  • 4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Instructions:

  1. In a large bowl mix the fruit, vegetables, then combine with spicy arugula.
  2. In a small dish, whisk together red wine vinegar and olive oil, drizzle dressing over salad and garnish with herbs and goat cheese.

Pineapple Chicken Spread

Chicken spread works great on crackers or in sandwiches.
Chicken spread works great on crackers or in sandwiches.

Time: 55 minutes                                                      

Ingredients:

  • 3 grilled chicken breasts
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 ½ cups pineapple, diced
  • 1 lime
  • ¼ cup cucumber, diced
  • ¼ cup red bell pepper, diced
  • ¼ cup yellow bell pepper, diced
  • ¼ cup red onion, diced
  • 1 cup guacamole dip
  • 1 ½ teaspoons sea salt

Instructions:

  1. Halve the large pineapple lengthwise, and then hollow out one half.
  2. Reserve 1 ½ cup of the fruit for the chicken spread and save the remainder for future use.
  3. Lightly season chicken breasts with sea salt and pepper to taste and grill over medium heat in a large skillet in 2 teaspoons olive Oil.
  4. Once both sides are evenly grilled and tender, remove from heat and let rest for up to 5 minutes.
  5. While the chicken breasts are cooling down, use this time to wash and cut the vegetables. In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients and mix gently.
  6. Juice the lime and add the remaining sea salt if necessary.
  7. Cover with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator for 15-20 minutes. This will give all of your ingredients time to settle which will intensify the flavor.
  8. Fill the hollowed pineapple with the chicken spread mixture and serve with crackers for party guests or serve in a whole wheat pita pocket for a handy, on-the-go lunch.

Recipes by Nitiya Spearman

Label fables: 4 tips when looking at nutrition labels

Food marketing is powerfully persuasive and it often slips below the radar of our critical thinking.  Usually all it takes to lure a shopper into buying a product is to have a tempting buzzword on the front of a package.  We buy it because it’s low fat! And natural! And packed with fiber! You get the picture.

Understand the effects of the “health halo”

These claims can cast a blinding spell that has been dubbed the “health halo.” This term refers to foods pretending to be more than what they really are and can cause us to let our guard down.  For example, you might say to yourself, “Go ahead, have some more cookies, they’re low-fat!” That low-fat label is a hidden persuader giving you mental permission to eat more.  Lots of processed junk foods are hiding behind a health halo, so here are just a few things you need to know to defend yourself.

Realize the difference between fake and real fiber

Fiber is one of the hottest nutrition buzzwords.  Food companies have been ramping up fiber content on nutrition labels to impressive-sounding numbers by using fake fibers.  Ingredients to look out for include:

  • American_Fiber_Intake_Gap
    While fake fibers can help you reach your daily fiber goal, they may cause bloating. Stick to fiber from whole foods like fruits and vegetables.

    Inulin: made from chicory root.

  • Maltodextrin: made from rice, corn or potato starch. (Note to celiacs: sometimes it’s made from barley or wheat.)
  • Polydextrose: made from glucose (sugar) mixed with sorbitol (a sugar alcohol).
  • Oat fiber: made by extracting fiber from oats.

These fake fibers aren’t harmful, but they can cause bloating.  Also, they don’t have the same health benefits as naturally occurring, intact fiber that’s found in whole foods like fruits and vegetables.

While fiber can be healthy, be on the lookout for fake fibers like inulin, which can cause bloating Click To Tweet

Know that gluten-free doesn’t equal “healthy”

Gluten-free foods are all the rage in the grocery store right now and lots of people are experimenting with a gluten-free diet for curiosity’s sake.  Only a small percentage of people have a medical reason to avoid gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. For the vast majority of people, going gluten-free will not offer any health benefits.  In fact, gluten-free foods are often twice as expensive as their gluten-containing counterparts and higher in calories and sugar.  French fries are gluten-free, so just because a food is gluten-free doesn’t make it more nutritious.

Don’t be fooled by claims like “all-natural”

Don’t get excited over the claim “natural.” This claim is designed to make you feel like the product is farm fresh, but it’s meaningless because it’s unregulated and hasn’t been defined.  Read the ingredients list.  If you can’t pronounce it or there are more than five ingredients, it probably isn’t natural. The bottom line: don’t judge a book by its cover or a product by its package.