Tuesday, August 31, 2010

To Eat...or Not to Eat...Seafood

Five weeks in, the sleepless nights are now starting to add up and my little bundle of joy is robbing my brain of valuable thinking time. Well, at least I tell myself that my thinking time is valuable...So my "baby brain" has to thank my friend Steve for all of the good blog post ideas he has been providing me of late. 

Surprisingly (or not, for any other health professionals out there), very few of my friends or family actually ask me for nutrition advice. What is even more humorous is the discussions that occur regarding health or nutrition in my presence without anyone even so much as glancing my way. I have gotten used to just shutting my trap when this occurs because I have learned that unsolicited advice is rarely accepted with a smile. Maybe that is why I started this blog in the first place...to spew out all the information held hostage in my brain.

My friend Steve, however, is one of the few exceptions to this rule and a few days ago he asked me about what kind of seafood he should be eating, other than salmon (which is all most nutrition literature talks about). At the bottom of the email, he casually mentioned that the topic would make a good blog post and since I was stumped on what to write about next...voila!

Seafood is an interesting discussion, both from a nutrition perspective and an environmental perspective; one topic which I can claim to have a decent background in...the other, not. Here in BC, we are pretty fortunate to have the king's ransom of seafood at our doorsteps but few of us venture outside of a handful of comfortable favourites: canned tuna, fish and chips, salmon and prawns. When it comes to seafood, there are really two categories to choose from - the "superfoods" and the "healthy options". Read on, Steve...read on...

The Superfoods 
You guessed it, these are the cold water, fatty fish such as herring, mackerel, sardines and salmon. If you were only to eat one serving of seafood a week, make one of these stars your choice. Why are these so good for you? It isn't just the omega 3 fats...but that's a start. 

Omega 3s Cold water oily fish such as salmon are rich in anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats and what makes them really special is the kind of omega 3 fats they contain. We get ALA from vegetable omega 3s like pumpkin seeds and hemp seeds but fish give us what are called the "long chain" or "preformed" omega 3 fats, EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are not technically essential fats because in theory, our body can make EPA and DHA from ALA - but we suck at it. The most efficient of us turn about 20% of the ALA we eat into EPA and DHA, which are the potent omega 3s in the body; some of us can only convert 5%. So getting your EPA and DHA directly from fish makes a lot of sense, because we know that these two fats can help us soothe chronic inflammation, help us prevent chronic disease and even boost our brain function. In fact, EPA and DHA are so good for you that they are one of only two supplements I recommend everyone take, unless they eat 3 good sized servings of fatty fish a week. Wild fish is your best source; it used to be that it had far greater amounts of omega 3 fats than farmed but of course the farmers just started adding omega 3 to the feed to boost the level in the farmed fish. Nothing like "design your own" salmon...come on, people...eat wild! If your seafood does not specifically say "wild", it isn't.....so look for the label.

Vitamin D The next reason that these fish are so good for you is vitamin D, the other of the two supplements I recommend every man, woman and child consume. You can see my post on vitamin D here. There are very few natural food sources of vitamin D, which is critical for our immune function and likely helps us to prevent cancer. Salmon is the star here, with the most vitamin D: a wild Sockeye Salmon steak can have as much as 900 IU of vitamin D (which is 90% of the 1000IU that many experts are now recommending as a daily dose). Nothing else in nature comes close to this level.

Antioxidants Again, gorgeous wild salmon is the star here (remember, colour equals antioxidant pigments) and in salmon, it is the pigment astaxanthin that is responsible for the lovely colour. Same old story with farmed salmon...that pink colour is added via feed manipulation. A unique member of the carotenoid (like beta carotene) family, astaxanthin does not convert to vitamin A in our bodies but the significance of this is not really known. Astaxanthin is being studied for its potential role in reducing inflammation, protecting our skin from sun damage and preventing cancer.

The Healthy Choices
This is the category I will lump most other seafood into. Fish and seafood stand out for being beautifully lean sources of protein, making them a great addition to the diet. White fish and shellfish are low in fat and calories and nutritious: scallops are rich in heart healthy magnesium and anti-oxidant selenium; oysters excel for blood building iron and skin loving zinc and sablefish boasts the electrolyte potassium for healthy blood pressure. I generally recommend that (non-vegetarian) folks divide their daily protein choices between vegetarian sources, poultry and fish throughout the week for better health and choose red meats only occasionally.

There is one health caveat with shellfish and that is the cholesterol in foods like shrimp and lobster. However, these foods contribute very little cholesterol to our diets in comparison with red meats and cheese. In addition, unless you have a significant cholesterol problem, it is the saturated fat in our diet that we worry about with regards to our blood cholesterol levels than our dietary cholesterol intake so feel free to enjoy shrimp every once in a while, guilt free!

Mercury and other Contaminants
The biggest health risk that seafood poses is that of the neurotoxic contaminants, mercury and PCB. When it comes to seafood and contaminants, think to yourself: "Good things come in small packages." Women who are or can become pregnant and children are most vulnerable to dietary exposure to mercury and should take care to avoid highly contaminated species of fish. 

Since contaminants like PCBs and Mercury are not excreted, they accumulate as you move up the food chain - yes, that goes for us too! All the fish we eat (if we are eating highly contaminated species) deposit these nasty toxins into our own system where they stay put and wreak havoc with our health. The superfood fish are all low in contaminants because they are small fish. Stay away from the "big game" fish like swordfish, marlin, shark and fresh tuna. When buying canned tuna, choose light tuna over white tuna, which comes from smaller tuna species. 

Which fish are best for you when it comes to contaminant levels? Rather than have me reinvent the wheel, read this Health Canada article which lays it all out on the line...pun intended.

Now for the larger question...is it sustainable to eat seafood at all? This is a far more complex issue. With the best Sockeye Salmon run we have seen in BC in years, this little voice might get pushed to the back of our minds as we clammer down the dock to buy this delicacy by the bushel load. As news of the health benefits of eating fish grew, our appetite (and therefore demand) for seafood, salmon in particular, grew alongside. And what the affluent Western world wants, it gets - to the detriment of less affluent nations that used to rely on seafood as the main source of protein in their diets.

As our love for seafood grew, we learned to choose wild over farmed, line caught over trawled and local over exotic. These changes went a long way towards "greening" our seafood choices. However, some experts argue that we should refrain from eating seafood at all as even stocks of typically "sustainable" sardines and mackerel in South America and Scandinavia are at risk of overfishing (some say that we are already there) to supply us with fish meal used to fatten up farmed salmon. Others, like the pioneering chef Frank Pabst at Blue Water Cafe believe in introducing us to less favoured items like sea urchin and jellyfish. 

I will stop there or risk exposing my lack of depth when it comes to exploring this topic. Where you stand on this issue is a personal choice but there are some great resources to help you make your decisions. Home grown Ocean Wise is an education program from the Vancouver Aquarium which guides you towards local businesses providing sustainable seafood options, designated by the Ocean Wise logo. The website also provides a list of more sustainable species. The Monterrey Bay Aquarium has its own program called Seafood Watch, where you can print off a handy little pocket guide that I like because it organizes itself with a stoplight system to categorize sustainable choices and also alerts you to high mercury choices so you can avoid them. If you have an iPhone, you can even download an app to keep at your side as you shop and dine. 

In good health,

Monday, August 23, 2010

Cheap Tricks...to help you slash calories and beat the bulge

Now that you know what calories are...I will show you a few easy ways to slash them! Anyone who knows me knows I am not a fan of radical diets but realistically speaking, we still live in a world where most of us are gaining weight year over year. So what is the answer? Looking for little ways to cut the fat (pun intended) out of your life, for good! No fuss, no muss...no starving yourself only to dive into a whole pint of Haagen Dazs 12 days later. I speak from experience...

By cutting out what doesn't really matter you can still enjoy the things that bring you culinary and sensory joy - be it garden fresh corn smothered in butter, homemade pecan chocolate cookies or grand dinners out - no calorie counting necessary. Here are 4 "cheap tricks" to help slim out your routine!

Swap your starch: we snack constantly on processed carbohydrate foods which are super easy to overeat and don't really fill you up (or provide real nourishment!). So switch your snacks to fruits and veggies: try carrots dipped in hummus, apples and cheddar, pear dipped in almond butter or just pure, unadulterated fruits and veggies instead of granola bars, crackers and pastries. Feel fuller, longer and nourish your body with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants instead of empty calories.

Example of your calorie savings: 12 baby carrots instead of 12 Ritz crackers: 156 calories

Make over your yogurt: Most yogurts on the shelves are little more than a bunch of food byproducts covered up with food cosmetics to make them sickly sweet. Real yogurt is a health food, "yogurts" made from modified milk ingredients, stabilizers and artificial flavours and sweeteners are not. And varieties made with sugar can have a massive calorie count, even non fat versions! So switch to plain, non fat yogurt made with only milk and live active cultures....I love Greek yogurt for its extra protein (thanks to its lower water content) and beautiful creamy texture. Taste buds not ready for plain? Sweeten on your own with a bit of honey or better yet, real fruit!

Example of your calorie savings: 3/4 cup non fat plain Greek yogurt with 1/2 cup fresh or thawed blueberries versus 3/4 cup of a typical fat free sweetened berry flavoured yogurt: 100 calories

Liquid Assets: Want to trim your waist in a major way? Stop drinking your calories! Not only do liquid calories not fill you up (except for milk, which actually turns semi solid in your stomach), your body actually doesn't recognize the calories from drinks meaning you will not compensate by eating less later on. So as hard as it might be for all you sweet tooth gulpers out there...go for calorie free drinks like water, seltzer, plain tea and coffee and you will slash your daily calorie intake without changing anything about your diet.

Example of your calorie savings: Large unsweetened iced tea instead of a large blended coffee beverage: 230 calories

Measure up: There is an old saying that goes something like this: "My eyes were larger than my stomach." However, what I have noticed is that eventually, the stomach catches up with the eyes! Larger portion sizes just prime us to eat more as our stomachs (and our behinds) expand. A great way to get your back down to earth is to actually measure what you eat. For example, most of us just pour out oil into a pan for cooking, but why not just measure a tablespoon (for a family's meal) or a teaspoon (for a smaller recipe)? And when you are serving yourself pasta or rice, why not just measure out a cup full? Using measuring spoons and cups just helps you be more aware or servings so that you can start to eyeball what is actually on your plate.

Here are some sample measurements and the caloric heft:

1 tbsp of oil: about 100 calories
1 cup of cooked pasta or rice: about 200 calories
1/3 cup of raw nuts: 275 calories
1 oz of cheese (the size of 3 dice): 115 calories
3-4 oz of meat (the size of a deck of cards): 165 calories

What are your favourite tricks to help keep your weight in check without taking over your routine? Let us know!

In good health,

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Nutrition ABCs: Calories

There were a lot of ways to go with the letter C....like carrots, carbohydrates or calcium....but I thought that it might be a nice idea to really get back to basics and talk calories. Calories are top of the list on the nutrition facts panels, so they must be important right? We count calories when we are watching our weight, we burn calories through activity and food manufacturers market their 100 calorie snacks as being better for us than those with larger (and less round) numbers. 

We talk calories every day...so what exactly is a calorie and why does the amount of calories we eat matter? 

Here is the scientific version -

A calorie is a unit of heat energy: to be accurate, what we call a calorie in nutrition speak is actually a kilocalorie, or 1000 calories of heat energy. To simplify, we won't concern ourselves with that technicality but say that one calorie is the amount of energy in the form of heat it takes to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius. Huh? 

What this definition illustrates most importantly is that a calorie is not just a made up concept (which is a question I have been asked before...so yes, Virginia, a calorie is a real thing!). 

When a food has 250 calories, for example, it means that it can provide your body with 250 units of energy once it is digested and absorbed. To learn how many calories are in a food, the food is actually burned in a lab in a device called a bomb calorimeter to determine how much energy it gives off. A simpler way of doing this is to calculate the calories based on known values for the ingredients (but all data had to come from somewhere...burn baby burn!).

While food provides energy, our body spends it keeping us alive: from breathing to digesting, talking to walking, each function and activity we carry out requires energy and the food we eat provides it. Think of it like a living bank account: if our bills and expenditures keep draining the account and we put nothing in it, we are going to bounce our checks and soon our phone will be turned off and we will lose our homes. 

Our best research based equations to determine how much energy we need in a given day are not really that accurate and can over or underestimate by 10 - 30%. The best way of measuring how much energy a person needs is to actually contain them within a hood and measure their respiration on something called a metabolic cart. By measuring the use of oxygen and release of carbon dioxide, we can measure the energy that a person requires to maintain life. However, most of us will not get the opportunity to try out this process; the best way to know if we are doing well is to determine whether our weight is stable. If it is, we are doing a good job of maintaining energy balance: the calories in roughly equal the calories going out.

If we were to eat nothing or deprive our bodies of adequate energy for long periods of time, we end up with an energy deficit and our bodies go into conservation mode. Doing so moderately is how we lose weight...long term or severe deprivation wreaks havoc on our optimal metabolic state and affects everything from our energy levels to our immune system to our strength and mental function. And our bodies are smart: let your calorie intake drop too drastically and your body will respond in kind by lowering its rate of metabolism, meaning that you will need fewer calories just to maintain your weight...which is how chronic dieting can get you into trouble and encourage weight gain long term.

Our body stores energy mainly in fat cells: one pound of fat tissue stores 3500 calories of energy. So to lose a pound, we have to create a deficit of about 3500 calories, which most health professionals would counsel you should do over about 4-7 days for a healthy, moderate loss of one to two pounds a week. To gain a pound, you need to consume about 3500 calories more than you need, which seems like it would be tough to do but it sure can sneak up. Here is a great example -

Say you go out to Starbucks and get a regular coffee Frappucino because it is a hot summer day. You don't go crazy and get whipped cream or a large size and so your treat sets you back about 140 calories. That seems pretty reasonable, doesn't it? But let's say that you drink that Frappucino in addition to your regular diet...you don't eat less during the day or exercise more to compensate. And say that you enjoyed that Frappucino so much that you decide to get one the next day and the day after that and continue to do so for one year. Over that year, you would have eaten 51,100 extra calories. And if your body is efficient and turned each 3500 calories into a pound of fat, you would have the potential to have gained 14.6 pounds. All by having a Frappucino a day. The upside to this equation is that the reverse is true: take that drink out of your daily routine and you can lose weight without making any major changes to your diet.

So where does the energy (or calories) in a food come from? From the macronutrients they contain: carbohydrates, fats, protein and alcohol. Water, vitamins and minerals while essential for life do not provide energy (so they don't contain calories). Fat contains 9 calories per gram and is the richest source of energy. Carbohydrates and protein both provide 4 calories per gram and alcohol rings in at about 7 calories per gram. When people say that fat is fattening, it is not because it has any special evil powers but it is easy to get more energy than you need when it is more than double the energy, gram for gram, over carbohydrate or protein foods. 

It can be easy to make the mistake that all that matters when it comes to health or weight is calories - and many health professionals fall into this trap too. Note the low fat fiasco of the 1990's in which we switched to tons of processed fat free carbohydrate snacks and got fatter than ever. While calories provide energy and ensuring a good energy balance is important for a healthy weight, calories tell you nothing about the nutritional value of a food: the nutrients it provides, the way it affects your blood sugar or how satisfying or filling it is.

So why do calories matter? My number one rule of healthy eating is to generally eat whole foods without fancy packages...fruits, vegetables, whole unprocessed grains, lean proteins and dairy (or non-dairy). If you follow this rule, it is unlikely you will need to count calories to maintain a healthy weight (and note that many of these foods don't even have nutrition facts panels!). However, if you are looking at processed foods like cereals, snacks or most importantly, fast food and restaurant foods - you can use the calories to compare a better choice.

Hmm...this post could easily go on and on so I might stop there....but first I'll give you the Coles Notes version:

- A calorie is a scientific unit of heat energy used to measure the energy that foods give you or that human activities consume.
- The calories in food come from fat, protein, carbohydrates or alcohol...not from water, vitamins or minerals.
- Calories are important because if we consume more energy than we spend, we will end up gaining weight.
- Calories will not, however, tell you anything about the nutritional quality of the food which has a bigger impact on your overall health (provided you are not gaining weight).

if you have any other questions, let me know and I will address them in an update!

In good health,

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Eat...healthier muffins

Baked goods, especially the kind that you find in cafes and most supermarkets, are nutritional wolves in sheep's clothing: loaded with trans fats, hyperprocessed carbohydrates and way too much sugar. The average commercially baked muffin can top 400 calories and 20 grams of fat so next time you find yourself looking for a treat? Skip the muffin...if you are going to spend the calories anyways, you might as well have that donut or cookie!

But before you give them up entirely, muffins can be a super healthy and convenient snack or breakfast food when you make them yourself from wholesome ingredients. Muffins are so quick and easy to make...even for a novice baker. In less than an hour, you can have a fresh stock of on-the-go snacks (put half the batch in the freezer for later!).  Friday night I tried this Banana Muffin recipe created by Ann Barnes, author of Be a Better Being and co-owner of the company Mum's Original Hemp. Since the recipe wasn't featured on their website, I asked to share it on mine! 

If you like the recipe, Ann has lots of great recipes using hemp and Salba on her own site.

What makes these so healthy? First things first, by making 24 muffins you will be making muffins of an appropriate serving size...avoiding the giant carbo-load of cafe muffins. This recipe also uses whole wheat flour, higher in fibre and nutrients than white flour. Using bananas and yogurt allows for less fat in the recipe, while retaining an exceptionally moist texture. Finally, the start of the show is hemp hearts, loaded with anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids and plant based protein. Hope you love the recipe!


Mum's Banana Muffins
(shared with permission)


2 cups all purpose whole wheat flour
11/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
4 overripe bananas
1 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup plain yogurt
2 eggs
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup Mum's Original Organic Hemp Hearts


1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and lightly butter 2 muffin tins and set them aside.
2. In a large bowl combine flour, baking soda and salt and set aside.
3. Mash 2 of the bananas with a fork in a small bowl so they remain slightly lumpy.
4. In another bowl, whip last 2 bananas with sugar for 3 minutes with an electric hand mixer until smooth.
5. Add the melted butter, eggs, yogurt and vanilla to the banana sugar mixture and beat well, scraping sides of bowl once or twice.
6. Add wet ingredients to dry and mix until just incorporated taking care not to overmix (15-20 strokes is a good rule of thumb!).
7. Fold in hemp hearts and mashed bananas with a rubber spatula.
8. Spoon batter into muffin tins, filling halfway and rap tins on counter to remove air bubbles.
9. Sprinkle a few hemp hearts on top of muffins before baking 18 to 20 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Let cool slightly before removing muffins from tins to cool completely.

Desiree's tip: if you like ginger, I added 1/2 cup of chopped crystallized ginger with the hemp hearts and banana! Chopped walnut would also be amazing...if you come up with any other additions that work well - please share!

In good health, 

Saturday, August 7, 2010


Immortalized in the Bible, the Qur'an and Greek and Indian Mythology, figs have long been a luscious staple in the Mediterranean diet (and immortalized in North America by the Fig Newton Cookie) but many of us are not familiar with the fresh fruit. 

Dried figs are widely available but bear little in common to the experience of eating a fig right off the tree. Sweet and creamy with crunchy seeds, figs have a delicate flavour and texture that lends itself well to a variety of recipes. While most figs are grown in the Mediterranean region or even California, the fig tree can even thrive right here in Vancouver. These gorgeous specimens came from a friend's East Vancouver fig tree and I was able to feast on them 24 hours after they came off the tree. I have also spotted fig trees on jaunts around the city so keep your eyes peeled!

Interesting fact: what we call the fruit of the fig tree is actually the receptacle of a flower. The flower grows inside the "fruit" and is pollinated not by bees but wasps! Wasps enter and exit the fruit by the pore in the bottom of the fruit.

Figs, whether dried or fresh, are incredibly nutritious: four fresh figs contain 150 calories and make the perfect summer dessert. Rich in potassium (464 mg) and magnesium (34 mg) for your heart and bone building phosphorus (28 mg) and calcium (70 mg), figs are more than just a sweet treat! Figs are also rich in detoxifying fibre, with 6 grams per 4 fruits, which is one quarter of a woman's daily needs (25 g per day) or almost one sixth of a man's daily requirement (38 g per day).

Figs are also a source of iron, containing just over 1 mg of iron per 6 fruits which make them a great addition to a prenatal diet.

Fresh figs are extremely delicate and should be handled with care and eaten at once! Try them on their own or use this simple recipe. This is a great appetizer to make for company when the thought of turning on the oven seems insane in the summer heat....

Recipe: Figs with Chevre

Wash, carefully peel and quarter 6 fresh ripe figs. Top with 1 tsp goat chevre (I love Saltspring Island or Happy Days). Slice prosciutto or Serrano ham into 1 inch long ribbons and wrap fig with one piece. Arrange on tray and drizzle with pre-made balsamic reduction.

In good health,