Eating healthy on a budget…

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… Examiner article here.


Nutritional Rx. for what ails you emotionally

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“Tears are the summer showers to the soul,” the English poet Alfred Austin is to have said.

I agree with ole Alfie– there is something quite therapeutic about a good cry.

As someone who seems predisposed to melancholy (hello, GRE word!) however, I know something is up when the tears prove more frequent than the laughter, which I imagine Austin would think even more valuable to the soul.

Because of my interest in nutrition, though, I tend to favor food and nutrient remedies, rather than the pharmaceutical treatments that abound. That is not to say that SSRI’s and other antidepressants are a load of bunk, but I have never personally found them to be helpful.

What can a person do, then, to counteract depression?

Plenty, as it turns out.* There are quite a few nutrient deficiencies that any decent, holistic-minded health provider should test depressed patients for, some of which I’ve highlighted below. I did not include amino acid supplements like L-Tyrosine or herbal treatments like St. John’s Wort, but information on the subject is plentiful on the Interwebs for those interested.

Nutritional remedies for depression:

Source and studies referenced here

1. Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)

Vitamin B6 is a co-factor (read: helpful assistant) to the enzymes that convert tryptophan into serotonin (a prominent “feel good” neurotransmitter) and tyrosine into norepinephrine, a chemical whose deficiency has been implicated in depression.

A severe B6 deficiency is rare, but minor deficiencies are more likely, and there is evidence that lower levels of the vitamin are common in depressed individuals. Get your fill of B6 in meats, whole grain products, vegetables, nuts and bananas.

2. Folic acid

In a 1980 study, folate concentrations were found to be significantly lower in patients with depression than in those who were not depressed. Furthermore, depressed patients with low folate levels exhibited higher depression scores on the Hamilton Depression Scale than depressed patients with normal folate levels. Sounds like incentive enough to stock up on folic acid, found in foods like leafy vegetables (spinach, turnip greens), legumes, liver and liver products, baker’s yeast, fortified grain products and sunflower seeds.

3. Vitamin B12

In a study that examined depressed individuals with a B12 deficiency, intravenous administration of this Super Vitamin resulted in marked improvement of symptoms. B12 supplements also helped a group of women struggling with postpartum psychosis. Look to fish, meat (especially liver), poultry, eggs, milk and milk products for B12.

4. Vitamin C

Perhaps a surprising player in lessening depression symptoms, Vit. C is a cofactor for tryptophan-5-hydroxylase, which catalyzes the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin. Rely on the old standards for your Super C– citrus fruits, as well as papaya, bell peppers and broccoli.

5. Magnesium

Magnesium deficiencies can be responsible for a variety of unpleasant symptoms– poor attention, restlessness, insomnia, dizziness. Depression also finds its place on this list. Studies have found that magnesium levels are lower in depressed individuals than in control subjects, and that intravenous administration of the mineral led to a resolution of depressive symptoms. Try halibut, tuna, artichokes, grains like buckwheat and oat bran, as well as nuts for quality sources of magnesium.

6. Omega-3 fatty acids

Fun fact: in countries with higher fish consumption (think Japan and Taiwan), the depression rate is 10 times lower than in North America. Postpartum depression is also lower in such countries. Get adequate amounts of omega-3’s in cold water fish like salmon, sardines and achovies. Vegetarian omega-3 sources include flaxseeds, walnuts and soybeans.

There you have it, folks. One more tool to help ease depression and foster happiness, and it’s as close as your fridge and pantry!

* Full disclosure: I am not (yet!) a Registered Dietitian or health provider of any sort, so don’t take my word for the above. Instead, talk to your GP about making these simple dietary changes, which, at the very least, won’t harm you.

It’s National Salad Week, y’all!

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My Examiner article on the subject here.

Ode to a breakfast classic

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Somewhere between Mr. Quaker and the advent of Cheerios, oatmeal lost its luster.

Not to worry, though, ‘cuz the grain is and has been making a comeback in recent years.

After reports surfaced that the soluble fiber in oats could help lower cholesterol, the U.S. experienced an oat bran “craze” that peaked in 1989, right around the birth of yours truly.

Then, eclipsed by breakfast cereals with cutesy names and even cutesier shapes (Lucky Charms, for example), oatmeal suffered a temporary decline in popularity.

The cereal experienced a second wave of fanaticism, however, after a 1997 FDA ruling that foods containing oat bran or oats be allowed to display a “may reduce risk of heart disease!” claim.

Now on its way back into the hearts and breakfasts of families across the country, oats can be found in many forms, from convenient packets of flavored instant oats to one of my favorites– Irish Oats.

You could take your oats like the Swiss and enjoy a hearty bowl of Muesli, a popular dish made of uncooked rolled oats, fruit and nuts.

Muesli! Care of

Or you could try your hand at one of the many Scottish oat-based dishes, from a traditional “porage” to something more daring like Highland black pudding (yuck!)

As for myself, I’m particularly fond of quick-cooking oats, which share the same nutrient profile as the slow-cooking sort. I’ve taken to mashing half a banana into my oats, which saves me from using added sugar or syrup as a sweetener.

1/2 cup quick-cooking oats, with half a banana mixed in. Cinnamon and fresh cherries on top!

I’m also a fan of adding a small handful of shredded unsweetened coconut to my oats a minute or so before they are done cooking.

Boundless possibilities aside, oats are the perfect food to make your own. Add berries if you’ve got them, or stir a tablespoon or two of peanut butter into the mix. Go as wild as you’d like, or stick to the Gold Standard– rolled oats and a generous serving of Vermont maple syrup 🙂

Latest Examiner piece

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UVM professor co-authors report on recommendations for preventing childhood obesity; read the piece here.

It ain’t that simple

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Now that I am nearing the end of my college career, I am often asked a) what I majored in, and b) what I plan to do with my degree.

When I reply that I plan to further my education and earn my R.D. and M.S. in nutrition, I get a variety of responses. Some people express a shared interest in “all that healthy eating business” and wish me well, while others seem to think that nutrition is less worthy a field than, say, medicine.

Such folks warn me that my future schooling will rely too heavily on the teachings of what they see as a corrupt and power-hungry FDA, and remind me that there is more to good nutrition than the traditional food pyramid.

Others wonder why I need graduate school to further my understanding of nutrition; can’t anyone brand a diet and supplement philosophy these days?

I choose not to engage in the majority of these conversations. I don’t bother informing my well-meaning advising staff that I am deeply aware of the power of a particular food or crop lobby to suade a FDA ruling, or that I find it paramount to keep abreast of research in all areas of the field of nutrition, including that which applies to “alternative” philosophies like macrobiotics and Chinese medicine.

It is true that a slick marketing scheme and sufficient capital can make you rich selling açaí berries or a bottle of goo professing to “cut fat FAST,” but the field of medicine faces and has always faced the same quackery. A little trephination for your epilepsy, perhaps?

If nutrition is to medicine as food is to pharmaceutical drugs, than the two differ only on one key point– pharmaceuticals are available largely only by prescription, while that which is “prescribed” by nutritionists and dieticians is available everywhere you look. Whether it is a King-sized Snickers staring you down in the checkout line at the grocery store or the meat loaf your mom lovingly crafts every time you visit home, the genre of medicine known as food is omnipresent.

This omnipresence is both a blessing and a curse; anyone has the ability to treat a calcium deficiency with milk or leafy greens, or waning energy with a slice of whole-grain toast and peanut butter, but this copious supply of food also has its drawbacks. 24 hour-access to food and food and more food ensures that the quackery reaches us that much faster, and in places we might not expect.

Stopping into Walgreens on my way home from class the other day, I wandered through the aisles looking for a couple of things. In between the vitamins and cold remedies was a small display of clearance items. Glittery pens and adult diapers dominated, but there was also an abundance of diet products– a package of cardboard treats care of the Hollywood Cookie Diet, some Hoodia spray (really? I mean, really?) and various other items claiming to remove those pesky 20/30/[fill in the blank] extra pounds. The bullshit might not have been selling well, but it had proved just how ubiquitous it was.

Photo credit:

In light of all this bunk, it is understandable to question the validity of nutrition as a science. How can the business of feeding one’s self be considered a “science” when it is within our own capacity to eat in a way that protects us from everything from migraines to chronic disease? And when it is so patently easy for the bullshit to slip through the cracks?

My answer is this: Despite how frequently the powers that be of the nutrition world change their mind about the merits or dangers of coffee, chocolate or red meat, it is still the scientific method that guides their inquiry, just like the medical field.

It is the scientific method that allows biomedical research studies to be approved by an IRB, and to test the impact of a beta carotene or vitamin D supplement on the experimental group. And it is the scientific method that informs what, if any, conclusions can be drawn from a particular study’s results.

Say the group receiving the supplement experienced better health markers than the group receiving a placebo. Before it can be argued that the particular nutrient or vitamin was responsible for the improvement in health, questions must be asked of the experimental design. Was the study double-blind? In other words, did neither the study’s participants nor the research staff know which treatment a particular group was receiving?

If the study was indeed double-blind, are there confounding factors that must be considered prior to formulating any conclusions? Is there something about the experimental group that might also be responsible for improved health? Better fitness habits, for example?

I don’t mean to bore you with the remnants of my Psych. 192: Research Methods knowledge, but I do hope to help convince you that good nutrition, like good medicine, is a scientifically rigorous discipline.

Anyone can manufacture a product professing to do x, y or z, but it wasn’t some slick bullshit artist who was responsible for figuring out that Vitamin D is necessary for proper calcium absorption.

Just sayin’– it isn’t that simple.

Macrobiotics: what’s it all about?

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I know it’s Grubfirst time, but I just don’t have it in me tonight, so I’m hoping you’ll be sufficiently placated with another Examiner article. This latest piece discusses macrobiotics, a nutritional philosophy that, contrary to what “Us Weekly” and “People” magazine would have you think, originated not with Gwyneth Paltrow but with Hippocrates. The goods here.

In other news, I banged out a kick-ass draft of my personal statement for grad. school yesterday (boo yah!) and made some progress on some fellowship applications, hence my fatigue. I also made an appointment to meet with my nutrition professor from my first year to discuss grad. school admissions. I’m really in love with this one program, but maybe she’ll convince me to loosen up and look elsewhere. UVM’s got a good nutrition program, as does Cornell, but I just think Tufts would be the best fit.

Hope the weather is bearable in your respective cities!

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