Living Lite

Smart Foods: The Science of Brain Nutrition So Far

March 18, 2012

My clients regularly ask me: Are there foods which help my brain? My answer: Yes! What you eat profoundly affects your brain, memory, and mental acuity.

"Nutrients are essential for brain function," said Martha Clare Morris, at a National Institutes of Health conference on brain function and preventing cognitive decline.

"The dietary components with the strongest evidence to date for dementia prevention include antioxidant nutrients, fat composition, and B vitamins," said Morris, director of Nutrition and Nutritional Epidemiology at Rush Medical College in Chicago.

Antioxidant Nutrients

"The brain is particularly vulnerable to oxidative damage due to its high metabolic activity and the presence of relatively few antioxidant enzymes ... Antioxidant nutrients (vitamin E, vitamin C, carotenoids, flavonoids) are a natural defense mechanism ... Of the antioxidant nutrients, the evidence for brain protection is strongest for vitamin E; that for carotenoids, vitamin C, and flavonoids is limited and inconsistent but promising," said Morris.

But when it comes to nutrients, both too little or too much can be dangerous. So I recommend you get those nutrients from food, not supplements, which can be harmful if taken in doses which disturb your body's natural nutrient balance.

Some examples of foods high in brain-protecting antioxidant nutrients:

Vitamin E: Sunflower seeds, almonds, sunflower oil, safflower oil, canola oil, hazelnuts, pine nuts, spinach, turnip greens, beet greens, dandelion greens, canned pumpkin, carrot juice, broccoli, sweet potato, sweet red peppers, mangos, papayas

Carotenoids, such as Beta-Carotene (orange), Lycopene (red), and Lutein (yellow/green): Orange, red, and deep green veggies and fruits, particularly … Carrot juice, carrots, butternut squash, pumpkin (or any orange-colored winter squash), sweet potato, greens such as spinach, collards, kale, turnip greens, beet greens, avocados, orange melons such as cantaloupe, red peppers, apricots, broccoli, plums, mangos papayas, plantains, Brussels sprouts, watermelon, asparagus, tomatoes, watermelon, pistachios

Vitamin C: Citrus fruits such as orange, lemons and grapefruit, peaches, sweet and hot peppers, papayas, pineapple, strawberries, broccoli,kiwi fruit, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi

Flavonoids: Cocoa, green and black tea, citrus fruits, dark chocolate, red wine, apples, grapes, berries, numerous fruits and vegetables

Fat Composition

Fat is an essential nutrient. But the type of fat you eat trumps everything. Fat ends up in all of your body’s cells, including your brain cells. It acts as a cell lubricant, improves flexibility and communication between cells.

Learn more about brain-healthy fats, B Vitamins, and the proven brain-healthy lifestyle.

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Five So-Called Health Foods You Should Avoid

March 10, 2012

Eating healthy can be harder than you think, thanks to an enterprising food industry that wants us to consume more than we need. That’s because our country’s agricultural system produces twice what most people require - 3,900 calories per person per day - according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. This encourages creative marketing to unload the excess, much of it made with cheap ingredients, having long shelf-lives, and minimal nutritional value - the kinds of "food" with the highest profit margins.

As a nutrition consultant, I know that words such as “low fat,” “high fiber,” “multigrain” and “natural” can fool even the most sophisticated customers into believing what they’re buying is healthful. In fact,  food industry-funded market research indicates this.

What can you do? First, make a habit of reading the ingredients list, not just the Nutrition Facts panel. And remember the following products worth resisting...

Reduced-fat peanut butter

The oil is the healthiest part of a nut,* containing most of the nutrients, so there’s no advantage to taking it out. In fact, it’s worse because it robs the peanut butter of its health benefits. “Reduced-fat peanut butter has as many calories and more sugar than the regular,” says Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Instead: Buy regular peanut butter. Eating one or two ounces of nuts daily is associated with reductions in heart disease and cancer risk. A recent Harvard study showed that eating nuts is associated with lower body weights.

Enhanced water

Drinks such as Vitaminwater © are essentially sugary drinks with a vitamin pill. They are “unequivocally harmful to health,” says Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health. “Whether vitamins dissolved in water have any benefit will depend on who you are and whether you are already getting enough. . . . Some people may be getting too much of some vitamins and minerals if they add vitamin water on top of fortified foods and other supplements.” A recent Iowa Women’s Health Study found an association between certain commonly used vitamin and mineral supplements and increased death rates.

Instead: Drink water, ideally from the tap (“Eau du Potomac,” as it’s known locally). It’s the best drink for hydrating your body, is naturally calorie-free and contains fluoride to prevent tooth decay. No supplement matches the nutrients in whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains.

Energy bars

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Robin 'Poldark' Ellis Delights Georgetown with his Mediterranean Cookbook

March 8, 2012

I have gone completely gaga over Robin Ellis. British star of stage and screen, Ellis was the swashbuckling heart-throb Captain Ross Poldark in the classic BBC series, "Poldark." When I heard he was coming to D.C. to promote his new Mediterranean cookbook, with his wife Meredith's support, I jumped into action, and so did a group of generous, community-minded people who came together to give Ellis a warm Washington, D.C. welcome. Washington Fine Properties' Nancy Taylor Bubes opened her home and her heart to more than 80 guests, the American Institute of Wine and Food  co-sponsored, Bistrot Le Zinc Executive Chef, Janis McLean, demonstrated one of Ellis's signature recipes, and at least twenty guests and fans brought dishes from Ellis's book. 

Debbie Weil, Lisa Lambert, Hostess Nancy Taylor-Bubes, Roxanne Fleming (Photo by: Johanna Medlin) Debbie Weil, Lisa Lambert, Hostess Nancy Taylor-Bubes, Roxanne Fleming

Nancy Taylor Bubes' dining table was brimming with simple yet sublime Mediterranean dishes like "Roasted Eggplant Slices with a Walnut and Garlic Spread," "Grilled Lamb Chops with Rosemary," "Tzatziki," "Fennel Salad with Parmesan Shavings," "Minestrone," "Grilled Strips of Duck Breast Smothered in Walnut and Garlic Sauce," and "Rice and Spinach Torte."

Guests Enjoy Mediterranean Recipes from Robin Ellis' Cookbook (Photo by: Robert Arnold) Guests Enjoy Mediterranean Recipes from Robin Ellis' Cookbook

One of Robin Ellis' signature dishes, "Salmon Fishcakes with a Sauce of Yogurt, Mustard and Dill," demonstrated by McLean, was a crowd favorite.

Bistrot LeZinc's Janis McLean and Robin Ellis Demonstrating Salmon Cakes (Photo by: Johanna Medlin) Bistrot LeZinc's Janis McLean and Robin Ellis Demonstrating Salmon Cakes

For the past twenty years, Ellis has lived in the south of France with his American wife, Meredith Wheeler, and their menagerie of animals while honing his skills as an accomplished chef. I've been completely charmed by Ellis' website and blog, which he develops in collaboration with wife and partner, Meredith. Their evocative stories and photos of their lives in the south of France, their culinary experiences and travels, and even step-by-step recipe instructions, have been an inspiration for me and my clients, to whom I recommend his new Mediterranean cook book with enthusiasm.

Robin Ellis' Village in the South of France (Photo by: ) Robin Ellis' Village in the South of France

Ellis was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes twelve years ago and has managed to keep the disease controlled, stay healthy, fit, and even optimistic. "After a few weeks of shock, and 'why me,' the diagnosis became an opportunity to get into shape," said Ellis. "It opened up a whole new culinary path." His new book, "Delicious Dishes for Diabetics: Eating Well with Type 2 Diabetes" (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011) is for anyone who loves Mediterranean classics. It's written in simple language for a complete beginner, yet it is sophisticated enough for an accomplished cook; all will appreciate this fine book filled with recipe gems.

Robin Ellis with copies of his new Mediterranean cookbook (Photo by: Meredith Wheeler) Robin Ellis with copies of his new Mediterranean cookbook

Read more details and read the fascinating Washington Post story by Food Editor, Bonnie Benwick, about Robin Ellis' life, acting career, and his only Washington, D.C. appearance here in Georgetown.

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