Spice Up Your Life for Better Health

Another piece I had on my OB (original blog) with a few updates on timing.

Ok, so it’s cliche, but for a lot of cultures spice is a part of life. Plus, new research from Penn State shows that adding spices to your meals could have positive health benefits – not to mention making those bland American dishes tastier.

I heard a story on NPR about spices and how certain spices can help cut the risk of a high-fat meal. Note: meal, not diet.

The research looks to have studied spices often used in Indian dishes, curries for example. They did open the segment with turmeric milk.They also chose “bold amounts” of other common household spices.spices_in_ahmedabad

It’s good news for those of us who love a rich curry made with lots of turmeric or bold amounts of garlic and oregano. During the study, they used a blend that included these spices, as well as paprika, rosemary and ginger.

The research showed the spices cut triglycerides in the blood. (NPR story here)

The story got me to thinking about what other spices may have health benefits and what those health benefits might be.

5 Healthy Spices and Herbs

Cinnamon can lower blood sugar, triglycerides, LDL and total cholesterol in people with type-2 diabetes.

Suggested Uses: add a teaspoon or two to Greek yogurt, steel cut oats, or even your coffee. Tossing it in smoothies is another great option.

Turmeric contain curcumin which can inhibit cancer cell growth. The study above also shows implications of lowering triglycerides.

Suggested Uses: enhance store bought curries or toss a teaspoon in when cooking rice, quinoa or other grains. Or you could try the turmeric milk mentioned above. Turmeric is also an ingredient in many masala powders.

Chili Peppers contain capsacin which offers medical benefits such as pain relief and improving heart health. Studies also link capsacin to fighting prostate cancer and stopping ulcers.

Suggested Uses: add chili peppers to bean and rice dishes, chilis, stir fries, and any other recipe that needs a little kick.

Ginger helps decrease motion sickness, settle uneasy stomachs, and reduce nausea; it may also provide pain relief and the swelling associated with arthritis.

Suggested Uses: candied ginger or crystalized ginger – which can be found at your local health store – is a quick, easy option for motion sickness. Side note: my son suffered car sickness, I tried ginger candy, it seemed to help. Ground ginger can be sprinkled on sweet potatoes and carrots, in baking recipes, stir fries or on fish.

Oregano has been found to contain the highest antioxidant activity of 27 fresh culinary herbs.

Suggested Uses: Top soups, pizza, salads, or pastas with a bit of chopped or dried oregano. It can also be added to pizza or pasta sauce. Fresh oregano is best for providing antioxidant benefits.

Other Spices

While this is a short list I hope it’s provided some insight in to the health benefits of spices.

Another benefit of spicier dishes is that spices and herbs pack a flavor punch without all the calories.

Sure, curries contain coconut milk and a lot of these would be paired with extra virgin olive oil, but in moderation the healthy fats of those two combined with the health benefits of the accompanying spices are well worth learning a new recipe or two.

If you’re in the Tampa/St. Pete area there are several health stores that offer bulk spices, which means you can select as much or as little of each spice you’d like to try rather than purchasing 6oz of a spice you’re uncertain about. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done this.It’s a great way to try new flavors without worrying about waste.

What are your favorite spices and herbs?

What are your go-to recipes that pack in a lot of flavors?


Is a Calorie a Calorie?

Weight Loss: Calories In vs Calories Out

Whether or not you’ve done any research on weight loss, you’ve heard a variation of this statement: to lose weight you must expend more calories (out) than you ingest (in). I started watching Fed Up, by Stephanie Soechtig with Executive Producers Katie Couric and Laurie David, on Netflix and haven’t stopped thinking about this question. I’ve also been hearing a lot of nutrition “advice” lately that I’m uncomfortable with. So, naturally, I’ve been digging in.

So, is it really as simple as: Eat fewer calories and exercise more?

There’s a bunch of research on whether a calories from an almond is the same as a calorie from soda. According to Dr. David Ludwig, director of the Boston Children’s Hospital obesity program, they are not.

His studies have found that calories from low glycemic foods (nuts, beans, and non-starchy vegetables) do not spike blood sugar or stimulate hunger and cravings like high glycemic foods (sugar, potatoes, bread) tend to do.

This would indicate that, at least for weight loss and maintenance, one calorie does not equal another.

Dr. Ludwig acknowledges that people can lose weight on calorie-restricted diets, though not for the long term. It appears that many who count calories as their sole “diet plan” tend to fail eventually due to difficulty resisting temptation.

I think there’s more to it, but I’m not a PhD. Honestly, as a teenager, I lived by my calorie intake and output. It was dangerous. I don’t believe all or even most people will have this problem. The issue is the amount of effort it takes to constantly be counting. Then, when you intentionally or unintentionally forget to add that fun-sized candy to the calorie count, you’re left with feelings of failure or resentment. These emotions, which we often attach to food, can undermine even our best efforts if you give them enough time (see: Rethinking Emotional Eating).

The implicit suggestion is that there are no bad calories, just bad people eating too much. But the evidence is very clear that not all calories are created equal as far as weight gain and obesity. If you’re focusing on calories, you can easily be misguided. Dr. Mozaffarian

In Fed Up Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, from Harvard Medical School, also weighed in. His research expands on Dr. Ludwig’s in that Dr. Mozaffarian’s studies show that, while 100 calories from the macronutrients fat, protein, and carbohydrates were the same thermodynamically, they perform differently when ingested by a complex organism.

Studies show that different types of calories are absorbed in different ways. For example, high-fiber foods tend to reduce caloric absorption by about 25%. In other words, people who eat high-fiber foods tend to absorb only 3/4th of the calories contained within that food. The rest is excreted as unused waste.

What Does it All Mean?

It means, it’s complicated. The documentary, Fed Up, definitely skews toward the concept that all calories are not created equal.

There are other studies that refute this. Some arguments include a study by Dr. Y. Claire Wang of Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, which indicates that a calorie is a calorie, the issue is that high-glycemic foods are just more easily consumed.

A NYTimes.com piece summed up Dr. Wang pretty well when they wrote, “studies consistently show that sugary beverages, potato chips and other high-glycemic foods are indeed associated with weight gain. But this is because they are rapidly digested and easy to consume in large amounts, “not because they bypass our energy balance.””

This is an interesting point. Are potato chip calories the same as legume calories and are we just more inclined to eat a full bag of chips (7.75 oz bag = 8 servings) than a can of beans (15 oz can = 3.5 servings)?

If you’re not sure where to find this information, don’t worry! The website choosemyplate.gov has you covered. You’ll find Nutrition Label information to help make choices that meet your dietary needs. They even make it easy, check it out.

So, what do you think? Is a calorie a calorie or is there more to it? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter, or FB.

Rethinking Emotional Eating


Originally this post was going to be about performance, but it organically turned into a post about emotional eating. I want to say, I am not a registered dietitian. I am a regular person who’s spent a lot of (healthy and unhealthy) time thinking about, learning about, and exploring the world of food. I’m also a certified health coach and a survivor of anorexia nervosa (the eating disorder was pre-education, btw). Feel free to ask questions in the comments or shoot me a message.

Eating is Emotional

Think about it. Almost every holiday, celebration, and many rewards come with requisite eats and treats. Additionally, there’s a whole list of “comfort food” waiting to take our minds off of whatever ails us (stress, loneliness, missing old times).

We often gather around the table, the grill, or the movie popcorn with friends and family. Food is important to our emotional well-being. 


Sometimes emotional eating can lead to overeating, or getting stuck in a food rut. Maybe you miss family dinners but now everyone’s grown up and moved away, or weekends are just too hectic with kids’ schedules. Maybe those family dinners often had a regular side dish or dessert, so when that item is available you go a little overboard. Or, maybe you can only get the family to sit down together if you order a giant bucket of KFC. Whatever it is sometimes is ok, all the time isn’t doing you any favors.

What Can You Do About It?

First, understand this is normal. We all have our “things”. Second, give yourself permission to think about why the food is so important, or irresistible. Is that stale pretzel from the baseball stadium *really* tasty or do you get it because that’s what you always got when you went to stadium as a kid? No judgements, just a small bit of reflection.

Here’s an easy one for me. Sheet-cake? What’s even in that? No idea, but I’ve accepted more pieces than I’d like to admit at company parties because it’s what you do. Believe me, your cake having (or not) doesn’t determine anyone’s ability to have a good time. Besides, if you’ve ever worked in an office, you know that cake isn’t going to waste.

So reflect some. Keep a journal, track moods after eating foods on apps, or just sit with it for a bit. I’ve tried a few different methods, usually depending on my mood. There’s no “right way”.

I do suggest you try it though. Even just once. Pick a food, think about the why, and you might be surprised.

**Please, if you or someone you know has an issue with disordered eating contact NIMH.


And Now a Word on Nutrition

Look, there’s a lot of content out there about nutrition. Some of it is great: peer reviewed journals, for instance. Most of it is junk. Seriously, I just typed in “best foods for weight loss” and got back 22,400,000 results. So, where does someone serious about nutrition, or serious about taking their nutrition seriously, even start?

One word: macronutrients.

Ok, but what is a macronutrient? 00000059

Pretty straight forward, right? It really is. It’s not a fad, it’s not a diet. It’s straight up nutrition that your body needs. It’s the same nutrients you’re ancestors needed and it’t the same stuff your progeny will need.

While their will always be fad diets with little to no scientific backing, there is a lot of scientific research behind macronutrients and how our bodies use them.

What You Need to Know

Our bodies require macronutrients to provide the energy necessary to maintain body functions and to allow us to carry out daily activities. As with everything, an individual’s specific needs will vary based on genetics, height, weight, activity level, etc. In general, the breakdown is: carbs, proteins, fats.

But wait! Fats were evil in the 90s and now carbs are the devil!

I know. Fads, remember?

The truth is as simple as this:

Eating too many calories will make you fat.

Fat doesn’t make you fat. Carbs don’t make you fat. Proteins don’t make you fat (or fit for that matter). It’s too much of any or all of these that lead to weight gain.

*We’re speaking gen pop here and not those who are afflicted with other health complications. It can definitely get dicey out there.

What You Need to Do

Keep a food journal for a couple of days. Be honest with yourself, you don’t have to show it to anyone. I know at our gym trainers like to use MyFitnessPal but use whatever you will use consistently.

*Another asterisk, I know. If you have had trouble with counting calories in the past (i.e. anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa) skip this step if you think it might cause undue stress and triggers.

Evaluate how much of eat macronutrient you are consuming and see how balanced it is. A lot of us eat way too many processed carbs and fats and not enough healthy carbs and proteins.

Here’s a cute little chart I found that can help (it’s not perfect but it’s succinct).


What Should My Macronutrient Breakdown Look Like?

Again, everyone is different. There are online calculators to help, but it’s still an online calc. It’ll give you an idea of whether you’re on track or not.

For example, BodyBuilding.com offers a macronutrient calculator.

When I plug on my age, sex, height, weight, goal, and activity level it gives me my breakdown. I’ve converted the grams to percentages below to make it easier to digest (ha!).

Carbs: 52%
Protein: 35%
Fats: 13%

Your numbers will be different depending on all of the variables above. I’m short, very active, and pretty much in maintenance mode. I used to have a desk job, so my activity level was less. Interestingly enough, when I change that one variable my percentages stay the same.

Carbs: 52%
Protein: 35%
Fats: 13%

You know what changed? The number of grams of each macronutrient I needed, by about 100g. So start with percentages, then look at total grams.

Remember, too much of anything can make you gain weight.

Remember too that cutting a particular macronutrient out of your diet, or reducing it to obscenely low levels, could have adverse effects you’re not considering. Plus, don’t you want a little bit of everything, everyday? I do.

It’s not magic, it’s science. As your goals change, so too will your macronutrient requirements.

For the next few days keep track of your food intake and activity level. If you’re not sure where to begin, here’s a list of a few macronutrients to get you started.