Super Foods & Nutrients

Dairy vs soy vs almond vs other milks - how to make the best choice for your nutrition needs

Non-dairy milk options are well and truly mainstream these days. While soy milk has traditionally saved the day for many dairy intolerant individuals as a milk substitute, today there is a wide range of milk choices that allow food and drinks to be enjoyed that may not otherwise be well tolerated.  But while you enjoy your almond or soy milk latte, it’s worth a fleeting thought about the nutrition quality of your milk.  Just because a milk might look the same or be used in the same way, it doesn’t make all milks equal from a nutrition perspective.  There are significant nutrient differences across the various milk options and these are important to consider (in conjunction with our overall nutrient intake from foods).

How do the milks differ?

The nutrition composition of a milk will depend on the source. For plant-based milks, the nutrition composition of the wholefood is not automatically translated to the milk.  For example, almonds are rich in a range of vitamins and minerals and provide protein, however almond milk is far lower in protein and minerals like calcium.  

Small differences in carbohydrate, sugars and fats between the different milks aren’t generally too much of a concern, other than perhaps the higher fat content in some coconut milk products and the higher sugar content of oat and rice milk.  More important is the protein and calcium content.

Protein

Most alternative milk options contain little or no protein, and the protein present is often low quality.  Soy milk is the exception - it has a similar protein content to dairy milk and it is high quality.  The quality of protein becomes particularly important if you are using milk in a recovery smoothie or shake after exercise. 

If your preference is rice or almond milk over dairy for example, ensure to add in a high quality protein source eg. try adding protein powder, almond meal, chia seeds to a smoothie with an almond milk base.

Calcium

The other nutrient to look out for is calcium, although many commercial products are now fortified with calcium up to a similar content as dairy milk.  If you choose organic non-dairy milk varieties, these are the ones less likely to be fortified with calcium, a quick check of the label should tell you.

Milk facts and figures (based on a selection of brands available in the supermarket, please read the label to determine the specific nutrient content of the brand of milk you use).

*Milk and low-fat milk refer to dairy varieties

*Milk and low-fat milk refer to dairy varieties

Dairy foods are a rich source of high quality protein and calcium.  If you can’t tolerate dairy or choose not to eat dairy, check your milk’s nutrition profile and adjust your daily food intake if necessary to fill some of the gaps for protein and calcium.

If you are interest in performance nutrition updates, please leave your details here for my newsletter and recipes.  You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and keep an eye out for my new book due out later this year.

 

 

Sushi rolls vs rice paper rolls – what you should choose for energy levels, weight and performance

The first time I ever ate a sushi roll was in Sydney - tuna and avocado as I was a bit wary of anything raw at that stage!  It would have been over 15 years ago and I remember how excited I was about this ‘new’ take-away option that was nowhere to be found in Melbourne back then! 

Sushi rolls and rice-paper rolls are easy to buy and easy to eat for a quick lunch or snack on the run.  Sushi rolls are a combination of rice, seaweed and protein/veg filling while rice-paper rolls are based on rice noodles, vegetables, herbs and protein. 

Although they are a similar shape, size and cost, sushi and rice paper rolls can be different nutritionally:

Carbohydrate

It’s all about rice for both sushi and rice paper rolls, great news for those who follow a gluten-free style of eating. 

Sushi rolls – Although white rice is often high glycemic index (GI), the combination of the rice with vinegar and protein/fat in the filling help to reduce the GI.  However, sushi rolls pack A LOT of rice into each little roll.  Choose brown rice when it’s on offer – not lower GI but boosts fibre and nutrient content.

Rice paper rolls – Rice noodles are lower GI and the amount of carbohydrate is usually a lot lower than sushi rolls. Rice paper rolls are also available in a lower-carb varieties, with more vegetables packed in, increasing the fibre and nutrients and reducing carbohydrate. 

Protein

Both types of rolls commonly contain fish, chicken, tofu, duck or beef for protein.  Rice paper rolls often fit in a bit more protein serve, but it depends where you get them and exactly how they are made.

Fat

Both varieties of rolls are generally quite low in fat, but fillings like avocado and fish will provide some healthy fats.  A salmon sushi roll doesn’t take the place of having a fish fillet meal however .  If the filling is crumbed and deep fried, or combined with mayonnaise, this will bump up the fat also.

Kilojoules

Sushi rolls range from 150-200 calories each, depending on filling and size, while rice paper rolls are general a lot lower and often under 100 calories per roll. This is without sauces – which can be high in sugar and salt, so keep sauce to a small serve.

So which is best?

Overall nutrition

Please remember that both sushi and rice paper rolls are decent take-away food options!  But if we are comparing, rice paper rolls most likely take the prize for the most nutritious, especially those packed with fresh vegetables, herbs and fish.  HOWEVER – brown rice sushi, with the iodine-rich seaweed, brings sushi up a couple of rungs on the nutrition ladder.

Energy levels

Rice paper rolls may be lower GI but they contain a lot less carbohydrate, so although they may theoretically help blood glucose levels, they may not keep you going for quite as long as sushi handrolls.

Exercise performance

Sushi rolls contain more carbohydrate so may keep you going for longer as a pre-exercise lunch or snack.  Rice paper rolls can contain more vegetables and herbs however, which are important for day-to-day health and performance, but not so much a fuel source. 

For more pre-exercise snack ideas, go to High performance snacks you should be eating at 3.30pm to get the best out of your post-work workout.

Weight management

Rice paper rolls are a clear winner with significantly less kilojoules, especially if packed with more vegies vs noodles.  Sushi rolls are still a great option however, and will likely fill you up for longer if you need to keep going for a busy afternoon ahead.  For more weight management tips 5 secrets of the French - how to eat the foods you like and not get fat.

In perspective

Both sushi and rice paper rolls are delicious and nutritious options to enjoy as a quick take-away choice….there are slight differences in carbohydrate and nutrients but either are going to be better than many other high-fat, high-sugar take-aways.

 

I would love to send your free performance nutrition updates, recipes and news about my new book I am working on about super food for performance, please add your details on my Thoughts page.

Ten weight loss 'super' foods that taste good too

Many people spend January trying to undo the fun of the festive season.  The good news is that you don't have to detox or live on spinach smoothies to get back on track.  There are plenty of delicious foods that taste great and will enhance your enjoyment of foods, but will also help you reach your new year health and nutrition goals. 

Here are just a few to start adding to your trolley:

Strawberries

Sweet and luscious, nothing beats a bowl of freshly picked strawberries.  The great news is that you can enjoy your berries in abundance, at not much more than 50calories for a whole punnet!  Berries on your breakfast or yoghurt are the perfect sweet substitute for sugar or honey, with the added bonus of Vitamin C to help you absorb the iron from cereal. Delicious on their own as a snack to satisfy mid-afternoon or late-night sweet cravings.

White fish

Are you eating lots of salmon for omega-3's?  Salmon contains the highest concentration of omega-3 fatty acids of all fish, but also contains more fat in total.  Oily fish are good for you, but don't forget about white flesh varieties - they do contain less omega-3, but are also lower in calories, so are a terrific option if you are trying to lose weight.  The protein content of fish makes it a terrific main meal option to keep you full and help prevent unnecessary snacking between meals.  Make your fish interesting, by adding fresh flavours from herbs, vegetables, garlic and citrus. 

Prawns

Prawns are often considered an indulgent food, but it's good to know they are protein rich and very low in energy (one king prawn = 15 calories).  Fresh, BBQ or stir-fry options are great, but the creamy garlic and tartare sauces or battered and deep fried options will reduce the efficiency of prawns to help you lose weight. Other shellfish such as oysters and mussels are also great to eat regularly.

Herbs

If you are serious about improving your health, think about planting a herb garden in your backyard or on the windowsill.  Fresh herbs contain negligible caloriees but pack a concentrated nutrient punch.  Using a range of different herbs will provide a variety of health (and taste!) benefits, making meals more interesting. Don’t forget the chilli!  Hot and spicy foods often take longer to eat, and all that water you drink to dampen the heat helps to fill you up and stop you from over-eating!

Green Tea

The list of benefits of green tea seems to be growing all the time.  If you love green tea you are in luck, as many of the benefits for health seem to kick in with 4 or more cups per day.  Green tea is a great substitute for other higher kilojoule beverages and a creative way to increase your fluid intake.  Green tea contains an antioxidant called EGCG that may have a mild positive impact on fat burning. Recent research shows that green tea could have an impact on depressive symptoms and a number of health conditions too, so go for green for health and happiness.  But remember that green tea contains caffeine, so take care if you are sensitive.

Nuts

We often hear about almonds being good for health and weight management, which they are, but other nuts are nutritious too!  Research shows that a handful of nuts per day can bring benefits.  If you really love nuts just watch your portions....more is not better as although nuts are nutritious they are also energy dense.  Eat nuts regularly as a filling snack or add to stir-fries and salads.

Green leafy vegetables

Green leafy vegetables are your new best friend when you are trying to lose weight.   You can basically eat as many as you want!  Greens are great for your waistline but also your health, containing a range of vitamins and minerals such as folate, Vitamin A, B, E, K and spinach also provide calcium and non-haem iron.   Cook up a storm with silverbeet, or try a spicy stir-fry with Asian vegetables such as bok choy, pak choi and gai larn. To compare the nutrient content of kale vs spinach vs rocket, click here for one of my most popular blog posts.

Lemon

Lemon can assist with weight loss in a number of ways.  Lemon juice contains hardly any kilojoules, but can add delicious flavours to food and drinks.  We know the importance of drinking enough water but many of us don’t like it plain from the tap.  By adding fresh lemon and lime, it can change the way you think about water.  Add sliced lemon and fresh herbs to plain soda or mineral water with ice for an evening drink or add lemon to boiled water as a morning beverage.  Lemon juice also makes a great dressing for salads, and enhances the flavour of fish, seafood and chicken dishes.

Natural yoghurt

There are so many yoghurts on the market, a wall of ‘light’, ‘extra light’, ‘diet’, ‘no fat’, ‘low sugar’…where do you start?  Avoid the confusion and stick with a plain natural or Greek-style yoghurt.  Add your own flavourings, such as fresh or frozen fruit, fruit puree, chopped nuts/seeds or a couple of spoons of natural muesli.  Natural yoghurts are rich in ‘good’ bacteria, important for optimal digestive health.  Yoghurt contains high quality protein and has a low glycemic-index, making it a filling snack for between meals.

Oats

The great thing about oats, and the reason they help with weight loss, is that you only need a small serve to make a meal.  Being high in fibre and low glycemic-index, oats can keep you going for hours.  The perfect breakfast option for busy days when you need to be performing at your best.  If you are not a porridge lover, go for bircher muesli or a home-style natural muesli (home-made with lots of nuts and seeds is even better!). To find out how oats compare to quinoa in the nutrition stakes, click here for my previous post.

 

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Five reasons why red meat is good for athletes

By jules (ginger beef stir fry) [CC BY 2.0 ( http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0 )], via Wikimedia Commons

By jules (ginger beef stir fry) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I remember my first sports nutrition lecture at university, where sports nutrition at the time was compared to what athletes may have been eating centuries ago.  Red meat was clearly on the menus of our athletic ancestors with ancient Greek marathon winners awarded cattle for their endeavours, and a hearty steak pre-race may not have been uncommon.  The science of nutrition has come a long way since then, and although steak may not be a pre-race meal of choice, the nutrition benefits of red meat for athletes continue to be recognised. 

Nutrition fads come and go, and the popularity of red meat has catapulted from one extreme to another.  Current dietary guidelines suggest a prudent intake of red meat, however not everyone follows these guidelines, with the recent jump onto the Paleo bandwagon keeping the grass-fed beef farmers in business.  Regardless of the style of eating, when it comes to sports nutrition, red meat is a winner.  We don't always talk about meat as a food on it's own, often you hear about the importance of nutrients like protein or specific minerals for athletes, but when we break it down, meat is amazingly rich in a range of nutrients.

Here are my top 5 reasons why red meat is good for athletes:

Number 5 - Healthy fats

Discussions around red meat and health usually focus on saturated fat content, or more recently cancer risk.  If you look closely at the fat composition of Australian beef and lamb you will find that they do in fact provide omega-3 fats.  Not as much omega-3 as fish, but meat isn't all 'bad' fat. If you are concerned about your body fat levels, you can reduce the calories of meat by choosing lean cuts or trimming fat from meat, or cooling casseroles after cooking and skimming fat from the top. 

With regard to the impact on cancer risk, it is the cured and processed meats that seem to be the main concern.  It is still wise to vary your protein foods and not eat red meat all of the time, but for most people you don't need to omit fresh meats. 

Number 4 -  Minerals

Beef and lamb are a great source of zinc and Vitamin B12, important for athletes.  Zinc is important for muscles and immune system, and may play a role in testosterone levels in males. 

Vitamin B12 is important for a range of body systems and may impact on immune function and energy levels.  Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products, and a small-medium size steak will provide your daily RDI.

Number 3 - Satiety

Do you usually find you are still hungry after a meal of steak and vegetables??  No, most likely not.  Red meat is filling due to the high protein content, and is broken down slowly in the digestive system so can keep you full for longer.  You don't need a huge serve either.  Protein in a meal can also lower the glycemic index, helping to keep blood glucose levels stable.  Red meat can help to manage hunger, as do other protein-rich foods, if you are an athlete trying to manage your weight or body fat levels.

Number 2 - Iron content

Iron is an essential nutrient for athletes.  Red meat contains haem iron, which is more easily absorbed than the non-haem iron found in plant sources. The easiest way to meet your dietary iron needs is to eat small serves of red meat regularly (x3-4 per week), plus include a range of other iron-rich foods.  Don't forget to add a food containing Vitamin C to your iron-rich meal for optimal iron absorption.

For more information about why iron important and a table of different foods and their iron contents, have a read of my article on the 2XU website, Iron Tough or Rusty.

Sports Dietitians Australia also have a great Fact Sheet Iron Depletion in Athletes.

Number 1 - Protein

Probably the best thing about red meat is the quality and amount of protein.  Red meat contains all the essential amino acids, making it high quality.  This includes leucine, the critical amino acid for stimulating muscle protein synthesis to promote muscle recovery and growth.  Meat is also protein-dense, so you only need a small serve for a big dose (lean beef contains approximately 30g protein per 100g, this can vary according to cut of meat).

For more information about protein and other foods that are great protein options, Back to Basics Protein - Foods That Contain the Most and Best Protein for Recovery and Training

If you choose not to eat meat for ethical reasons there are other foods such as dairy, eggs, nuts and seeds.  For athletes who follow a vegan style of eating it can be very difficult to meet needs for nutrients such as protein, iron, calcium and Vitamin B12.  It's not impossible, there are plenty of vegan athletes out there, but it takes significant time, effort and planning, as well as supplementation, to get nutrition intake spot on.

If you are an athlete who does eat red meat, then it's worth making a special effort to eat small amounts of fresh red meat regularly, in combination with other high quality protein sources,  for energy levels, recovery and performance.

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Vitamin D for athlete health and performance

It is quite likely that you may have low Vitamin D levels.  Recent estimates indicate that over 75% of the general population may be Vitamin D deficient.  If you are an athlete, you may be at even higher risk of having low levels, and this is a problem because Vitamin D is important for health and potentially performance.  In recent weeks I have found myself talking to many athletes about Vitamin D.  The end of winter is approaching in Australia, a time of year where Vitamin D levels can be on the downward slide.  I have also read a number of journal articles of late that highlight the important role of Vitamin D for athletes.

I am prone to low Vitamin D levels.  I am not a great one for regularity in taking supplements, so I am probably Vitamin D deficient right now if I am honest.  Particularly as we are continuing to endure a pretty cold winter here in Melbourne, and most of us in the southern states will find that our Vitamin D levels decline by the end of winter when we haven’t seen much sun for a while.  So what is all the carry-on about Vitamin D?  Why do we need it, who is at risk of deficiency and how can you improve your Vitamin D levels?

Why are so many people Vitamin D deficient?

Vitamin D is a pretty clever little vitamin and plays an important role in many of our body systems.  The big problem with Vitamin D is that we generally don’t know that our levels are low until something major happens eg. bone issues.  Unlike iron, where our body will often let us know via various symptoms that our levels are on the decline, Vitamin D isn’t quite as helpful and we can go for a pretty long time without being alerted to low levels.  The only reason I found out that my levels needed a boost was through a routine blood test when I was pregnant, so goodness knows how long my levels had been low for.

Unfortunately sometimes when you address one issue it can create another.  Sunscreen is essential for protecting our skin from the sun’s rays.  If you block the sun, you help to reduce the risk of skin cancer.  But you also block the sun’s amazing ultraviolet (UV) radiation which is required for the production of Vitamin D in the skin.  So all of our slip, slop, slapping, which is absolutely important to avoid burning our skin, doesn’t do much for our Vitamin D. 

Who is at risk?

Lack of sunlight is the number one risk factor for low Vitamin D.  So if you spend a lot of your daylight hours inside, like a number of athletes I work with who train predominantly indoors, your levels may be low.  Athletes may also have increased physiological demands for Vitamin D, compared to the general population.

Other individuals at higher risk include:

  • indoor lifestyle eg. work, study.

  • if you cover your skin for religious reasons.

  • if you have naturally very dark skin.

  • if you avoid the sun for cosmetic reasons or skin protection.

  • specific medical conditions.

There is some debate over the cut-off values for Vitamin D levels in the blood, and whether the set levels are in fact too high, meaning that more people are being diagnosed as being low in Vitamin D.  It is important to speak with your GP or medical professional to determine the best way to address your Vitamin D status and needs.

Why is Vitamin D important?

Bones - Vitamin D controls calcium levels in the blood and is required for the absorption of calcium from the gut, which in turn is important for bones.  Low Vitamin D can increase the risk of musculoskeletal problems, including bone conditions such as osteopenia and osteoporosis.  For athletes, an increase in bone turnover with low Vitamin D can increase the risk of bone injuries such as stress fractures.  Sufficient Vitamin D may help to prevent this.

Immune System - Vitamin D is thought to have a role in maintaining a healthy immune system, and some studies suggest that Vitamin D deficiency may increase the risk of viral respiratory tract infections. Winter is often when Vitamin D levels decrease, so if you are prone to getting sick in the cooler months make sure your Vitamin D levels are kept up throughout.

Mental health – There seems to be a link between Vitamin D and mental health, including moods and even depression.

Muscle strength – Vitamin D may have a particularly important role for improving muscle strength in athletes.  There is a potential for increased size and number of type II fast twitch muscle fibres and a study in athletes showed a positive impact on muscle function with Vitamin D supplementation if levels are low.

Injury prevention - Low Vitamin D may increase the risk for inflammatory-related injuries.

Performance - Few studies have looked at Vitamin D and its direct effect on performance in young adults, however multiple performance studies in older adults have related low vitamin D levels to decreased reaction time and poor balance.  There may also be a potential impact on VO2 max.

Strategies to increase Vitamin D levels

  • Spend some time out in the sun without sunscreen on  

    • Find a balance between sun exposure for Vitamin D and protecting your skin against skin cancer.  The amount of time required for exposure will vary depending on where you live.  Check the SunSmart website for more details on exposure times in Australia.    

  • It's difficult to obtain enough Vitamin D just from foods.  Only 5-10% of our Vitamin D may come from food.  Foods that are rich in Vitamin D include– salmon, dark-flesh fish, egg yolks, fortified foods (like milk), UV mushrooms.

  • Vitamin D supplementation may be required for certain individuals.  Speak with your health professional about appropriate dosages if you have been found to have low Vitamin D levels

Summary:  For athletes, there is limited evidence to support vitamin D as a direct performance enhancer, however optimal Vitamin D is important for health, immune function and reduced risk of bone injuries such as stress fractures, and muscle injury. Although Vitamin D is not shown to have a direct performance effect, the indirect impact could make a significant difference to performance and health/injury outcomes.  Further research is required to determine the magnitude of effect of vitamin D on performance, in particular the areas of strength, power, reaction time and balance.

This post presents information of a general nature only.  For individual advice about nutrition and supplementation you should consult with an Accredited Practicing Dietitian or appropriate health professional.
References: 
  • Ogan,D. & Pritchett, K.  Vitamin D and the Athlete: Risks, Recommendations, and Benefits. Nutrients 2013, 5:1856-1868

  • Von Hurst, P.R. & Beck, K.L. Vitamin D and skeletal muscle function in athletes. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care 2014, Nov;17(6):539-45

  • SDA Fact Sheet – Vitamin D

  • AIS Fact Sheet – Vitamin D

Best 10 foods if you love going to the gym

Back cover of my new bookazine, photo courtesy of Bec Doyle Photography

With my new book 'Eat Right For Your Life' being released earlier this week, I thought it was timely to share with you a snippet of what it's all about.  If you love going to the gym and enjoying the health and fitness benefits that regular exercise provides, then this postis particularly relevant for you.  Not that the book is all about sports nutrition - it covers a range of lifestyle stages, but of course I had to include reference to nutrition for active people.

It's amazing how much time and effort goes into producing a small book, from research, to writing content to developing recipes, to photography.  It was a pleasure to work with my good friend and talented photographer on the images (a busy weekend at my place last September cooking, styling and snapping).  The book looks at different life stages and lifestyles and provides nutrition tips and a list of some of the 'best' and 'beware' foods for each, followed by recipes based on the needs of each particular group. 

I thought I would share part of the introduction and the ten 'best' foods from the 'Gym Junkie' chapter, which focuses on nutrition for individuals who go to the gym regularly with the goal of building fitness, strength and improved body composition (I dont' love the word 'junkie' but it does get the idea across as to who that chapter may appeal to):

.....'In order to help build muscle you need adequate protein.  This doesn’t necessarily mean spending your weekly pay packet on fancy supplements, but you will definitely need to eat protein-rich foods regularly, and extra kilojoules to support muscle gains.

Protein is made up of individual amino acids, and it is likely that you will be able to achieve adequate amino acid intake from a carefully planned and timed dietary intake.  Protein supplements may be useful in a number of situations and they are formulated to meet the specific amino acid needs of training.  Perhaps the main benefit of supplements is the convenience factor, considering most high-quality protein sources require an esky to transport. 

Sure, protein is important, but you also need to make sure you have some nutritious, low-GI carbohydrates to keep you energised, as well as including some healthy fats.  Vitamins and minerals are critical for energy levels and recovery from training, so don’t neglect your daily fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and wholegrains.

10 best foods

Milk

It’s in everybody’s fridge, but few of us realise the amazing potential of milk.  Milk is a naturally high biological value protein supplement, containing all of the essential amino acids the muscles need to repair and grow.  One 300ml glass of milk contains about 10g of high quality protein.  In a smoothie, milkshake or just on its own, milk is great for pre- and post-exercise or as an extra source of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.  Milk also contains more electrolytes than many sports drinks, making it a terrific option as a rehydrating fluid. 

Turkey

Chicken has long been a favourite food for body builders because of its high protein content but it is not the only poultry option to help build muscle.  Remove the skin and turkey is a super-lean way to meet your amino acid needs.  Versatile and quick to cook, turkey makes the perfect sandwich filler or post-gym meal. 

Greek yoghurt

If you are serious about your health and fitness, yoghurt will be a staple on your weekly shopping list.  Sure, yoghurt is rich in protein and is a convenient pre- or post-gym snack, but it will also help to keep your insides healthy.  Yoghurt contains ‘good’ bacteria, important for optimal digestive health.  Aim for at least 1 cup of good quality yoghurt every day.  Natural or Greek yoghurt is lower in sugar and additives than fruit yoghurts, and make sure you read the label because some Greek yoghurts are higher in protein.  

Bok choy

If you are working on your muscles, the focus is often on protein rather than the importance of variety for optimising fitness and performance.  Green vegetables are a perfect example, rather than just cooking up chicken and rice, add in some Asian greens such as bok choy, pak choy, wom bok (Chinese cabbage), choy sum (Chinese silverbeet) and gai lan (Chinese broccoli).  These delicious vegetables are brimming with nutrients including calcium, iron and folate. Why not try including one new green vegetable every week. (To find out whether kale is king, visit my previous Thoughts article  Green Leaf Goodness: Kale vs Spinach vs Rocket, and the winner is.....)

Oats

Low in fat, high in fibre and low glycemic index, a delicious bowl of porridge will keep you going all morning, the perfect start to a busy day.  Make with milk and add some extra yoghurt or chopped nuts/seeds for extra protein.  If you are not a porridge fan, oats are just as nutritious in natural muesli or made into homemade Bircher muesli (such as the one pictured at the start of this post, recipe featured in 'Eat Right For Your Life').

Eggs

Eggs have fallen in and out of favour over the years, but current research shows that eggs can be enjoyed regularly, even if you do have high cholesterol.  For an active person, eggs are one of the highest biological value proteins you will find.  The egg white is practically pure protein, but don’t neglect the yolk!  Egg yolks are rich in minerals and important fat-soluble vitamins, which are often lacking in active people who keep to a low-fat way of eating.  If your cholesterol is on the edge you may need to be careful beyond six yolks per week, although you may be able to enjoy more.  Eggs are a tasty and nutritious option if you are active.

Rice milk

You may not have tried rice milk, but it is one of the best fluids to mix with your protein powder after the gym.  Why?  The carbohydrate in rice milk has a high glycemic index, which can aid in in recovery and promote absorption of the amino acids from protein powder post-exercise.  Rice milk does not contain much protein itself, but mixed with a protein supplement it provides an effective stimulant for muscle synthesis.

Herbs (including garlic and chilli)

If you are serious about improving your health, you should be eating herbs. Herbs add flavour to foods and contain negligible kilojoules when used in a mixed dish, but pack a concentrated nutrient punch.

Many fresh herbs have been found to contain vitamin, mineral and antioxidant concentrations many times that of standard vegetables, and using a range of herbs will provide a variety of health (and taste!) benefits.  Common herbs that you can be grown at home include basil (great in salads and with tomato based sauces), parsley (use with omelettes and fish), coriander (terrific in Asian style dishes, especially with chicken and seafood), rosemary (lean lamb and potatoes) and mint (both sweet and savoury dishes). 

Kangaroo

One of the leanest meats around, and packed with iron and zinc, kangaroo will help you meet your protein needs and keep you energised. It is also an economical option if you are watching your budget.  If you haven’t tried it, have a go but be careful not to overcook or the meat will become tough (marinate prior if possible).   Beef is a great choice too for quality protein and minerals.

Oranges

It is widely accepted that oranges and other citrus fruits are good for our immune system due to their Vitamin C content (one orange contains double the recommended daily intake).  But this isn’t the only benefit of eating oranges.  Oranges contain antioxidants (including vitamin C) that can help the body recover from exercise.  Vitamin C also helps the body to absorb iron.  If that’s not convincing enough, oranges are often recommended for people with rheumatoid arthritis due to their anti-inflammatory effect.  The anti-inflammatory potential of oranges may be due to flavonoid antioxidants, vitamin C itself or something else entirely, but this effect may potentially play a role in reducing the risk of a range of chronic diseases that are related to inflammation.

You can learn more about the best and beware foods for different life stages and lifestyles in 'Eat Right For Your Life', available now at bookstores, newsagents and various online retailers.

P.S. If you are a keen gym-goer, it may be useful to consult with an accredited sports dietitian to discuss your food and supplement requirements in more detail, and work with an exercise physiologist or appropriately qualified personal trainer to develop a training program for best results.

Green leaf goodness: kale vs spinach vs rocket, and the winner is.....

Do you love kale.  Or do you just eat it because it is supposed to be good for you?  I like kale, but I do question the hype.  So I decided to look a little closer and do some nutrient comparisons.  Specifically, I was keen to look at the differences between kale and other common green leafy vegetables that are used in similar ways to kale - spinach and rocket (arugula) and your everyday iceberg lettuce.   

Kale is not a new vegetable.  Kale has been around for centuries, with its popularity as a 'superfood' having only skyrocketed in recent times.  Does kale deserve this reputation as the king of all things green?  Kale is from the cabbage family and related to the highly nutritious cruciferous group of vegetables, which includes broccoli, cauliflower and brussel sprouts.  There are many different types of kale, with either curly or flat leaves, which can be eaten in a variety of ways, from salads to soups and smoothies.

To start with, let's just clarify that ALL dark green vegetables are packed with nutrients. Any small differences in nutrient content can be balanced out by eating a variety of greens for a range of different nutrients and health benefits.  This is easy if you like vegetables!  But if your palate hasn't quite extended to enjoy green vegies and you know you probably don't eat enough, then small differences could have more of an impact, and it may be well worth focusing on those vegetables with a higher nutrient density.

So here are the statistics for kale vs. spinach vs. rocket vs. iceberg lettuce.  Of course there are many other green vegetables, but these represent some that are often used interchangeably with kale.  These figures are from the US and represent a tested sample of each vegetable.  Therefore they are approximate values only, as nutrient content can vary from place to place, often due to growing conditions.  Although approximates, these figures still provide a useful comparison for measurable nutrients.  

What do you think?  First of all, I know some people may have looked straight at thecarbohydrate values and panicked when they saw that kale has over twice the amount of carbs compared to the other greens.  Before you throw your kale out, remember that 8.8g is a tiny amount of carbohydrate and these values are per 100g, which is a lot more than a standard serve.  Leafy greens are pretty light, so a serve of kale with other mixed vegetables is more likely to be around 20g, providing less than 2g of carbohydrate, which is practically nothing.   

My interest is not so much in the kilojoules or carbs, but the vitamin and mineral content and nutrient density.  Looking per 100g (which indicates the % of the nutrient in a food), the nutrient contents for kale look pretty impressive and you can see where the claims arise for 'high calcium' and 'rich in Vitamin C'.  But again, because leaves are so light, you need to divide the nutrient by 4 or 5 to get a better idea of actual nutrient content per serve.  

The firs thing that really stands out to me when I look at this table is the vast difference in nutrient content between the darker green leafy vegetables and iceberg lettuce.  Iceberg just doesn't compare really, right across the board.  This provides a very clear message that for nutrition, stack your salads with darker leaves.  Of course iceberg lettuce provides wonderful texture and can be a great base for other flavours within a salad, but for nutrition it really lags behind.

If we then look back to compare kale with spinach and rocket lettuce, for most nutrients there are only small differences.  When you compare the differences to the huge gap to the iceberg lettuce, then you realize that kale, spinach and rocket are jostling for first line position, with iceberg a distant last, rather than being spaced out well across the field.   Kale and rocket have more calcium than spinach but spinach has more iron (although not terribly well absorbed).  Most differences are minimal and although I could analyse every nutrient, when we consider the overall impact on health there is really no point.  There are, however, a handful of nutrients for which kale is a standout.

Kale is a far greater source of Vitamin C and Vitamin K compared to spinach and rocket.  Kale contains 120mg/100g Vitamin C, so per serve may contain around 25-30mg Vitamin C, making it a useful source when eaten raw.  Vitamin C can be damaged with heat/cooking so cooked kale may not provide the same benefits as raw. 

Kale is high in Vitamin K, which is particularly important for blood clotting, but not a nutrient that is at a high risk of being low or deficient for most people.  So strong is the blood clotting effect, that people need to monitor their intake of Vitamin K if they are taking blood-thinning medication such as warfarin.

Kale and spinach are both able to supply plenty of Vitamin A, an important nutrient for the health of our skin and eyes. The beta-carotene in kale and spinach can also act as an antioxidant.

All other differences in nutrients are either minor, or insignificant or not all that important for overall health.  One thing that is missing from the table above is baby spinach leaves.  I have found it difficult to find nutrient breakdown info for baby spinach to compare to regular spinach, but have read that the baby leaves may be higher in some nutrients and lower in others.  Current data on baby spinach would be welcomed. I have a sneaking suspicion that the baby spinach, such a popular option in salads, may in fact not be quite as nutrient dense as regular spinach, but I would love to compare the figures to be sure.

It is important to remember that the nutrients presented in the table above are those that we can measure readily in food, but this analyss neglects those other phytonutrients which are not routinely tested for.

Nitrate is the other one that is not listed above, but is present in dark green leafy vegetables.  Nitrate may have an important role for athletes by reducing the energy cost of exercise - nitrate is taken in concentrated form via beetroot juice for performance effects, but there is potential for green vegetables to contribute to nitrate intake also.  For more on nitrate visit Sports Dietitians Australia or read this article by Alan McCubbin Beetroot Juice: Good Science or Great Marketing Hype.  

Kale is reported to contain important antioxidants, including flavonoids and polyphenols.  Kale contains the flavonoids quercetin and kaempferol.  Quercetin has received some attention for a potential influence on endurance exercise capacity, however published research findings have been mixed (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21606866).  Antioxidants provide a range of health-related benefits and dark green vegetables, including kale, contain plenty.

So it seems that kale really is good for us, but is the nutrition value worth making the effort for?  I recall the first time I tried kale and it was definitely a case of take it or leave it!  I continued to revert back to the trusty spinach leaves as my tried and true salad base.  But lately I have been experimenting a bit, and recently ordered a kale salad with prawns and haloumi at a local restaurant.  When it came out I was actually very concerned about how I was going to manage to eat the amazingly large bowl full of green curly raw leaves, that to be honest looked terribly unappetizing.  But here is the thing with kale, and in fact most green vegetables.  How you prepare it and what you add to it can make or break your eating experience.  On this occasion, the chilli and lemon on the prawns, with the salty haloumi, pinenuts and a yoghurt based spicy dressing made the seemingly throat scratching unchewable bowl full of kale totally edible. In fact it was delicious.

The benefit of adding some healthy fats, like olive oil, avocado and nuts, is that the fat helps with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, such as Vitamin A, from the leaves.  So dressing your kale with some oils for flavour has the added benefit of boosting the nutrient availability.

The other great thing about kale is that, unlike many other so-called superfoods, kale is not ridiculously expensive when you consider other similar alternatives.

So what's the verdict, does kale win out over all other green vegetables as the senior member of the superfood brigade?  Kale is just one of the wonderful foods that is no doubt super, but certainly not that much more super than spinach, and for some nutrients less super.  But well worth including as one of your green vegetable options within different coloured vegetables every week. 

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The 10 best wheat and gluten-free carbohydrate foods if you train a lot

Grilled vegetable and quinoa salad, gluten-free

Grilled vegetable and quinoa salad, gluten-free

If you don't eat gluten or wheat then you are part of a very large club.  It seems that more and more people seem to be going grain and gluten free, and for a variety of reasons. For some people it is critical to their health for no gluten not to pass their lips, while others may be avoiding wheat unnecessarily, without really knowing if their body is better off or not.

The original wheat avoiders are those with coeliac disease who simply cannot tolerate a crumb of any gluten-containing food.  Gluten is a protein found in wheat and related grains such as rye, barely, triticale and oats.  Gluten truly is toxic to people with coeliac disease as it damages the lining of the small intestine and must be avoided at all costs for short-term digestive comfort and long-term health. 

Wheat can also cause digestive symptoms if you don't have coeliac disease.  If you are following a new eating style then you also may be avoiding wheat, and this may or may not be necessary.  I was speaking with the owner of a cake business recently and he mentioned the increasing sales of his flourless cake range.  Upon asking his customers why they are choosing the flourless, the frequent answer is 'because it is healthier'.  But is it really healthier for everybody?  Many people do need to avoid wheat products but how do YOU know if you should avoid wheat and gluten?  Here are the three main conditions that lead to avoidance of gluten and wheat:

- Coeliac disease

  Nil gluten allowed, full stop.

- Fructose malabsorption

More and more people are being diagnosed with fructose malabsorption.  The hydrogen breath test companies must be raking it in, with fructose and lactose malaborption testing readily available and although lengthy, can provide an indication of existing intolerances.  If your gut does not absorb fructose well, it is likely you may have trouble with fructans, which are found in wheat-based foods (individual tolerance varies significantly, so it is worth seeing an Accredited Practising Dietitian for more advice so that you are not avoiding foods that you could be enjoying).

- Gluten sensitivity/intolerance or Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Many people describe a range of gastrointestinal symptoms that improve when they stop eating gluten, so the natural inclination is to think this is a 'gluten sensitivity’.  There are a wide range of factors that can cause gut symptoms, including stress which is sometimes overlooked.  

Research has shown that gluten may not be the main culprit when it comes to Irritable Bowel type symptoms, but it could be the malabsorption of fermentable sugars (FODMAPs), some of which are present in wheat-based foods.  It is worth investigating a little further if you have gastrointestinal symptoms, see your doctor and specialist/s if required to ensure you are making dietary choices that are appropriate for your individual circumstances. 

 

The other popular reason that people avoid wheat is because the latest diet they are following tells them to!  Whether it be Paleo, LCHF, Atkins.....many fad diets recommend a reduction in carbohydrate, which is often very successful for weight loss, but unfortunately some diets also imply that 'wheat is toxic'.  Yes, toxic to someone with coeliac disease, but not for most people.  Personally, I am all for reducing carbohydrate as I think most people eat too much, but if you have a healthy digestive system then you should have absolutely no trouble digesting wheat. 

Some people DO just feel better avoiding wheat.  If you cut out wheat you are not just avoiding nutritious carbohydrate foods like wholegrains - you will also omit cakes, biscuits, savoury snacks, pastries and many other processed, high sugar and low-nutrient foods.  So it makes sense you would feel better and probably lose weight eating less of the latter.

Poor old bread seems to get terribly bullied when it comes to grain bashing, it is always the first food to be discarded when there is a change to wheat-free.  But it may not be the rye/spelt/wholegrain slice that is contributing to digestive symptoms.  It may just be the amount....think big thick sandwiches (the ones you buy at sandwich shops are often equivalent to about 4 pieces of standard bread) and overflowing bowls of pasta........eat a bit less at each sitting, and slowly, and your digestive symptoms could likely improve.

Be aware that sometimes a change to wheat and gluten-free can lead to weight gain rather than weight loss, not to mention constipation if fibre intake is reduced.  Some of the gluten-free substitutes are low in fibre and can be higher in fat/kilojoules, and often not as filling as wholegrain wheat options.  This is important to consider if you are eating gluten-free and trying to lose weight. 

If you DO need to avoid wheat, and you train really hard, it can be a real challenge to make sure you are eating carbohdyrate foods that are nutrient-dense (rather than living on processed gluten-free bread, rice crackers and jelly lollies for carbohydrates).  Here are some super nutritious wheat and gluten-free foods that will give you carbs to power your training and have you recovering like a champ, without the gastrointestinal issues.  

POTATO (SWEET OR WHITE) - For some reason potatoes have gone out of favour in recent years, but as far as a natural source of carbohydrate, you can't go past nutritious potatoes.  Often sweet potato is recommended over white, usually because of its lower glycemic index and vitamin content, but white potato with a higher glycemic index is terrific for post-exercise meals, and is fine when combined with other vegetables anyway.  Remember, although potato is higher carbohydrate than other vegetables, it is still a lot lower in carbohydrate than rice, pasta, and many other grains ( for example, the carbohydrate content of white potato is ~12.5g/100g cooked, sweet potato ~19g/100g cooked, brown rice ~30g/100g cooked).

SWEET CORN - Sweetcorn is another sneaky source of carbohydrate, also packed with nutrients and fibre, and a similar carbohydrate content to white potato at ~13g/100g cooked.  Great in salads, soups, main meals or a cob of corn as a snack.

QUINOA - Probably the most over-promoted and over-estimated food in the world, if you can afford quinoa it is still a great gluten-free 'seed' (see my comparison of oats an quinoa for more detail Oats vs quinoa for health, energy and performance.

RICE - Super-rich in carbohydrate, try the different colours and varieties of rice, or one of the many rice mixes available these days (such as rice with lentils or quinoa) to boost the fibre and nutrient content.  There is nothing wrong with white rice too, especially if you get lots of fibre and nutrition from other foods.  If you are looking for optimal nutrition value though,  go for the less processed varieties (but not everything you eat has to be wholegrain or brown all the time!).  If you are active, sometimes too much fibre can be a problem with stomach symptoms, particularly around competition.

OATS* - Oats are still controversial for people with coeliac disease and in Australia oats are not permitted to be considered gluten-free, although in many European countries uncontaminated oats are considered safe.  The issue is complex and relates to contamination risks during processing and also a component in oats called avenins that some people can react to.  For those avoiding wheat for reasons other than coeliac disease, enjoy oats regularly.  For more info on oats see my previous blog mentioned above Oats vs quinoa for health, energy and performance.

RYE/SPELT BREAD (not suitable for coeliac) - If you have coeliac disease you need to avoid rye flour and all bread needs to be of the gluten-free variety.  But if you are trying to reduce gluten for other reasons then choosing a bread with a high proportion of rye vs wheat, or a spelt slice, can be a tasty source of carbohydrates.

GLUTEN-FREE PASTA - Pasta is a quick and easy carbohydrate option for active people. Gluten-free pasta has improved over the years, and you can now find a wide range of varieties in most supermarkets.  If it's a while since you have tried gluten-free pasta, give some a try, combine with lean protein and vegetables or salad for a balanced meal.

MILLET - I have a confession to make.  Only once have I knowingly eaten millet.  Well, millet flour, when I was trialling some gluten-free muffin recipes.  This sounds very hypocritical, to incude millet on this list but not really eat it myself!  I am one of the many fortunate people who does not have a problem digesting wheat and wheat products, although to be honest I don't actually eat a lot of wheat on a day-to-day basis.  I am not on the lookout for wheat subtitutes for personal use, but I acknowledge the nutrient value of millet (it is a wholegrain, contains fibre and rich in magnesium). Try millet as a side dish with savoury dishes in the place of rice, or mixed together with quinoa or rice or made into porridge for breakfast.

AMARANTH - Again, not a regular staple in my cupboard, but amaranth is a nutritious pseudo-cereal (not officially a grain, but is used in similar ways and has a similar nutrition profile to other grains).  Amaranth contains a range of minerals (such as calcium and iron), and has one of the best amino acid profiles of plant-based proteins.  In Australia amaranth is commonly seen in dry cereals, but can also be cooked and used in dishes such as porridge and soup.  In many countries it is popped and eaten like popcorn.

POPCORN - Speaking of popcorn....it won't quite do the job for recovery needs, due to its carbohydrate content being so low, you would need to eat buckets worth.  But its low carbohydrate and energy density (1 small packet of popcorn only weighs 13g, with only 6g carbohydrate and ~55 calories) makes this a terrific wholegrain snack for active people who may be trying lose weight.  A great alternative to potato crisps or other savoury snacks, which are often a popular choice when eating gluten-free.  Make sure you go for the plain varieties, not the sugar/caramel coated options.

These are just a few nutritious and convenient options to help fuel your training and recovery.  For more ideas, see Better Health Channel - Gluten-free Diet for an easy to read listing of gluten-containing and gluten-free foods.

For more information on coeliac disease and gluten go to Coeliac Australia and to learn more about fructose malabsorption and FOMAPS go to Monash University - Low FODMAP Diet for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. 

If you are a bit confused about whether or not you should be avoiding gluten and/or wheat or if you already eat gluten-free and not sure if you are quite getting the balance right, then it might be worth sitting down with an Accredited Sports Dietitian, look for someone local to you via SDA Find a Sports Dietitian

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Oats vs quinoa for health, energy and performance

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I am officially over superfoods.  They are over-promoted, over-priced and over-done.  Take quinoa for example.  Sure, it's a nutritious grain.  Actually it is not really a grain, the part we eat is the edible seed of the quinoa grain crop, although the nutritional composition is similar to that of other grains so it tends to get lumped into the grain family. Quinoa is a great gluten-free option for those who have a true allergy or intolerance to wheat protein, which many people do (but don't get me started on the fad that 'gluten-free' has become).  Quinoa is nutritious, as many of the labelled superfoods are.  But there are hundreds of other foods NOT awarded the title of superfood that are equally, if not more nutritious.  

I like quinoa, but it is not always a staple in my kitchen cupboard.  I have some at the moment as I am trialling some quinoa recipes for my book.  Part of this inclusion relates to my fear that as a dietitian my integrity will be questioned if I don't include quinoa or some sort of other ancient grain somewhere in the book.  Saying this, my quinoa recipes are awesome (thanks to Justin Moran from Just In Time PT for his quinoa soup contribution, delicious)!  Don't worry, I have totally succumbed to peer pressure and included kale in a couple of recipes too.   

So, I was thinking about the whole superfood super-saturation and I got the quinoa packet out of the cupboard for a direct comparison to the homebrand oats (of which my family eat over 1kg per week).  You may be surprised by the results, based on 100g:

                                 Quinoa    Oats

Kilojoules                1590kJ    1590kJ

Protein                     12.9g       12.8g

Fat                             5.7g          9.3g

Carbohydrate          67.2g      54.8g

Fibre                          2.7g        12.1g

I was actually hoping that quinoa might prove me wrong and live up to the hype, but sadly no.  Quinoa and oats contain similar kilojoule and protein content per 100g, less fat in quinoa, less carbohydrate in oats and just over four times more fibre in oats.  Sometimes people are concerned about the fat content of oats, however they are  still relatively low in fat, based on serving size, so don't be mistaken that oats are fattening (we need some good fat).

I must give credit where it is due, and hail quinoa for it's vitamin and mineral content (which is similar to oats in terms of iron, calcium and magnesium content), amino acid profile and taste, I do love the taste.  Quinoa has great value for vegetarians and athletes due to the higher protein and nutrient content compared to standard rice, pasta and noodles - you don't see stir-fry and oats served too often.  Quinoa has a wide range of amino acids, and although often promoted as a complete protein, the total amount of protein in an average serve is quite small, around 6g per serve (50g dry).  Particularly when we consider athletes, who need adequate essential amino acids from ~20-25g protein for the immediate post-exercise recovery period.   Quinoa doesn't quite cut it for recovery protein on it's own, but combined with a high biological value protein source such as meat, fish, eggs or dairy it is a highly nutritious choice, and a great option as part of meals over a training day.

Oats are not considered a complete protein, but the amino acid profile comes pretty close.  It lacks lysine, an amino acid which is low in many grains, but which quinoa does contain in small amounts.  As per quinoa, oats should be served with an additional high quality protein source if consumed as a recovery option. 

An additional tick for oats relates to the beta-glucan they contain, which may be beneficial for those trying to reduce blood cholesterol levels.  Porridge or muesli for breakfast looks all that more attractive.

If you are trying to lose weight, both oats and quinoa are low-glycemic index, great for sustained energy levels and improved satiety - a small amount goes a long way.  Have you tried quinoa porrdige, not too bad!

Quinoa is gluten-free and a great option for those who have a gluten allergy, oats are not quite gluten-free but come pretty close, and are tolerated well by most people with an intolerance to wheat and wheat products.

So without labelling, both quinoa and oats can be considered 'super' 'foods' (note the differentiation from 'superfoods').

If I had to choose one over the other......I think the real clincher would be the price.......homebrand oats work out at around $1.60/kg, compared to over $20/kg for quinoa.  You pay 12 times as much for quinoa.....is it 12 times as nutritious??   Think about your overall dietary patterns, what YOU need and how you can enjoy both/either oats and quinoa to bring you health, energy, and performance benefits.

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My book Eat Right for Your Life is out now too, available at bookshops, newsagents and online retailers, including recipes with both oats and quinoa respectively!