Nutrients

Can jelly heal tendons? Maybe.....

Jelly.jpg

Much hype surrounds the role of gelatin in the repair of connective tissue injuries, but can it really make a difference, or is it just another nutrition fad? Nutrition trends like this can quickly grow wings and before you know it every injured athlete is making jelly for dessert.  Unfortunately in the case of gelatin it’s not as simple as daily bowl of jelly – the dose and timing are critical if it’s going to have an impact. 

Should home-made jelly concoctions be the new norm pre-training in the rehab gym, or are we all getting a bit carried away? 

Collagen and tendons

Connective tissues like ligaments and tendons are made up primarily of collagen fibres. It is the amount of collagen and cross-links within collagen that can impact on performance. Stiffness in the tendon allows for greater force production and subsequent strength, power and speed, but an imbalance between the strength of the muscle and the strength of the tendon or ligament can increase injury risk. 

Following a tendon injury, repairing the crosslinks is a high priority. Both training and nutrition can influence the number of collagen crosslinks.

 The role of gelatin

Glycine and proline are the common amino acids in collagen, and are both found in gelatin.  Vitamin C is also important for the process of collagen synthesis. Making these nutrients available in the bloodstream prior to exercise can promote absorption into the tendon.

A recent study by Shaw et.al. (2016) demonstrated that the increase in amino acids one hour after consuming a gelatin supplement was sufficient to increase collagen content. They showed a doubling of collagen synthesis by doing exercise that loads the tendon, and a further doubling of collagen synthesis with the addition of 15g gelatin pre-exercise (vs minimal impact of a 5g gelatin dose). Further research is required to determine effective dosages of both gelatin and Vitamin C, and whether doses should be scaled to body size also.   

These data suggest that adding gelatin with Vitamin C to an intermittent exercise program improves collagen synthesis and could play a beneficial role in both injury prevention and tissue repair. This has implications for reducing time to return to training, improved tendon functionality and potential performance outcomes.

Palatability problems

Consuming 15g of gelatin pre-training is easier said than done! The Shaw study mixed gelatin powder into Ribena for immediate consumption. Gelatin can be mixed with juice, made it into home-made ‘firm’ jellies/lollies or even used to create gelatin-rich pancakes! Whatever works....but just be prepared that 15g gelatin can be pretty heavy going.

Is gelatin worth the effort?

The problem when interesting research appears is that everyone suddenly becomes an expert and wants to jump on the bandwagon. There is still much to learn about dosages of both gelatin and Vitamin C and expected outcomes. On the other hand, if it does no harm and may speed up return from injury, which is ultimately the goal of an injured athlete, then it becomes an attractive option.

One note of caution - gelatin is increasingly being sold as a commercial product by supplement companies, posing a potential risk of contamination, so athletes who fall under any anti-doping code should be cautious. 

If you are interested in gelatin, and nutrition for injury in general, a session with a sports dietitian can help to ensure you are meeting your specific needs. 

For more sports nutrition info like this, I would love to send you free updates and recipes, just leave your details here. You can also follow my pages on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, or check out my Thoughts page for more articles.

 Want to learn more:

 Shaw, G., et al. (2016) Vitamin C–enriched gelatin supplementation before intermittent activity augments collagen synthesis. Am J Clin Nutr.

 Sigma Nutrition Podcast:

SNR #143: Keith Baar, PhD – Tendon Stiffness, Collagen Production & Gelatin for Performance & Injury http://sigmanutrition.com/episode143/

 

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.

Why juice is not as bad as you might think - tips for making a top choice

I am the first to admit that I am one of those dietitians who was never a big fan of juice.  My standard line was always to ditch the juice and eat a piece of fruit with a glass of water instead.  You have probably heard that one before!  Over time my views on juice have changed.  This is because juice has changed.  No longer is juice just the bottled reconstituted supermarket variety, or the sugary juice box that would be a school lunch order ‘treat’.  Today more and more juice is fresh.  Juice bars provide a range of juiced and blended options, which contain a whole lot more than just the liquid extracted from fruit.   With the variety of juice options out there, it’s possible to make fresh, smart choices that can help you meet your nutritional needs.  

Many dietitians are likely to recommend you keep juice intake to a minimum.  The Australian Dietary Guidelines suggest a maximum of 125ml of 100% juice as an occasional substitute for a piece of fruit.  This is based on the fact that many juices (sugar-added or not) contain over 10% sugar, just like soft drink.  It’s easy to drink that sugar and just a 300ml glass can give you over 6 teaspoons.  With obesity being a national health concern, public health messages to reduce sugar intake are warranted.  Many people consume too much from drinks that are loaded with sugar but low in important nutrients - these don't fill you up at all, making it easy to drink and drink and drink.

But with the age of the whizz-bang super blenders and superfood smoothies, a new variety of fruit and vegetable-based drinks has emerged.  Unlike old-school bottled juice, the new-age juices are more than simply sugar, water and a sprinkle of vitamin C.

Blended fruit drinks, with the inclusion of whole fruits and vegetables, herbs, spices, milks, nuts and seeds have seen traditional juice turned on it’s head.  Coconut water is now apopular base for fruit and veg drinks, along with dairy, soy, rice and almond milks.  Juice is often not ‘juice’ at all.

Nutrients such as protein, healthy fats and fibre are becoming more prominent in blended juice drinks as a result, providing health benefits and fullness.  A blended fruit drink can really become more of a meal or snack rather than just something to drink.

One criticism of regular juice is that the fibre and pulp are removed during the juicing process.  Many of the nutrients in fruit are found near the skin.  When whole fruit is blended, the skin is included, boosting fibre and nutrients.  Blending is best! 

Yes, there is still sugar in blended fruit drinks or smoothies.  But when the sugar comes from fresh fruit or milks, it brings with it other beneficial nutrients, an important point of difference compared to soft drink and other high sugar, empty-calorie beverages.  The presence of a wider range of nutrients replaces some of the sugar, which ends up reducing the overall sugar content of the drink (especially if vegetables are incorporated).  If you know your vegetable intake needs a boost, a blended fruit and vegetable smoothie is a great way to sneak a in a few extra serves to help you reach your 5 per day.

A recent study by the University of New South Wales* compared a range of on-the-go drinks for their overall nutrition quality and found the drinks that contained blended whole vegetables or fruits to be the most beneficial for nutrients overall.  It's important to consider the overall nutrition value of a drink rather than just focusing on one nutrient or the kilojoules.  By keeping informed about the nutrient balance of on-the-go drinks, you can make an appropriate choice of drink, serving size, frequency and timing of intake to meet your individual needs and preferences.

For example, someone looking for a lower-kiojoule but nutrient-dense refreshing drink may choose a green smoothie with plenty of blended vegetables and a coconut water base.  Someone who is super-active and trying to gain some muscle mass may benefit from a dairy based smoothie higher in protein with some fruit, nuts and seeds providingextra nutrition and energy.  Everybody's needs are different.

One concern about juice is that it can be acidic, creating an environment for potential damage to teeth. A number of factors contribute to your likelihood of dental issues, including the acidity, sugar content, 'stickiness' and frequency that foods and drinks are consumed.  You can reduce your risk by drinking fruit/vegetable based drinks through a straw to reduce contact with teeth, and make sure to always rinse and swish with water after drinking higher acidity drinks.  Incorporating dairy with whole fruit to make a smoothie can be protective for teeth compared to drinking juice on its own.  

Water is important for daily fluid needs (tea is right up there for hydration too), but if you are looking for a nutritious and tasty choice, a blended fruit and vegetable drink can provide a range of important nutrients, keep you full and put a smile on your face!

For more nutrition info, recipes and tips, sign up to my free newsletter below or check out my other blog posts on my Thoughts page.

* Reynolds, R & Lin, S. (2016) Nutritional analysis of a selection of on-the-go drinks, Full Analytical Report, UNSW Australia.

 

Recover like a champion - what top Australian athletes eat after training and competition

Salmon Patties 01.jpg

Salmon Patties Image by Rebecca Doyle from Bec Doyle Photography (from the book Eat Right for Your Life)

 

Ever wondered what your favourite sportspeople eat after training or competition?  Elite athletes have specific nutrition and hydration goals post-exercise to ensure they recover for their next session or event.  An athlete's recovery meal will be tailored to meet the specific need of the sport, and the goals and preferences of the individual.

We have heard from Lisa Weightman, Olympic marathon runner, in a previous blog post and gained an insight into her approach to nutrition Marathon Running Nutrition - with Rio-bound Olympian Lisa Weightman.  Lisa mentioned that her favourite recovery meal is her mum's salmon patties, and she was generous enough to share the recipe with us (hope she checked with her mum!! Recipe further on).   These salmon patties contain all the components that are important for athlete recovery, and believe it or not, they are not even dairy-free or wheat-free or low-fat or 'free' anything else, they are just nourishing home-cooked food.  Plus they tick all the boxes for recovery, providing the key nutrients: 

Protein

Carbohydrate

Healthy fats

Vitamins/antioxidants

What do some of our top Australian athletes eat?

There are plenty of great options that can make the perfect recovery food.  It's great to understand the theory about the nutrients required post-exercise but the meal also needs to taste good if an athlete is going to choose it regularly as a recovery option. It was great for Lisa to share her favourite post-run meal with us, and this got me thinking about other athletes from different sports and what they personally choose for recovery.    So I asked them!  Here are the favourite recovery meals from some of Australia's best athletes, if you want to know more about the athlete simply click on their name:

 

Todd Blanchfield - Professional Athlete at Melbourne United Basketball Club and Emerging Boomers Australian team

Favourite recovery meal: Grilled chicken with rice

Todd has a great understanding of foods for recovery and makes sure his organized with food ready to go after training and games.  He is handy around a BBQ, which is a great way to cook meat, chicken and fish for a quick and easy meal after training.  Combine with vegetables or salad and some sweet potato, corn, rice or quinoa for re-fuelling.

 

Alexander Carew – Australian 400 metre runner

Favourite recovery meal: Burritos

Track athletes train hard and need to recover well.  'One of my favourite post-training meals is making burritos, a great one to add a variety of vegetables to the daily intake.

It's a great option because it's simple to prepare and easy to make lots. Sometimes it's hard to predict exactly how much you'll need after a day of training, so this meal you can always go back for seconds (and thirds) if that's what your body requires! And if you're not a bottomless pit, like I am, you may even have enough for lunch tomorrow! 

My favourite race day food is protein pancakes (1 egg, cup of oats, a little water and a scoop of Sustagen Sport). But that's normally pre-race.'

 

Simon Clarke - Professional Cyclist, Cannondale Pro Cycling

Favourite recovery meal: Tuna and rice

Road cyclists burn a lot of energy, and recovery nutrition is especially critical for heavy training phases and multi-stage events.  Many professional teams have their own private chefs, but meals don't necessarily need to be complicated.  With timing being important for recovery, quick and easy works well, or try to prepare ahead of time.

'My favourite post stage race (ie. Tour de France) recovery meal is a protein shake made with half rice milk and half water, then a bowl of rice with a tin of tuna and a little bit of balsamic glaze for taste'.

 

Glenn Manton – Speaker, Author and Athlete (various sports, from AFL to bobsled!)

Favourite recovery meal – Banana smoothie

'I can't begin to describe how much I enjoy eating (not drinking) my banana smoothie post training. It weighs more than most of the weights I lift!'

'Clean, fresh, organic and healthy' is how Glenn describes his vegetarian-style approach to nutrition, he loves to eat tasty and fresh food.  Glenn's smoothie is no ordinary banana smoothie - it's a giant!  Glenn is aware of including some protein and carbohydrate and likes to mix it up.  His standard ingredients include a non-dairy milk base like almond milk or rice milk, bananas, granola, nut butter, mesquite powder and a vegetarian protein powder. 

If you want to learn more about Glenn's approach to fitness, nutrition and overall health and well-being, check out his, and other athlete, programs at Better Body 12 weeks.

 

Leigh Montagna – Professional Athlete at St Kilda Football Club, Director of Football - Boost Sport

Favourite recovery meal - Pizza (healthy-style) 

'Good mix of fats, carbs and protein, and easy to get down as a snack straight after a game.  I try to go for the higher protein toppings like chicken.  My motto is "if you deserved it, treat yourself"....not every week but more likely after a win!  

'My next proper meal post-game is never the same. I might go out for dinner or have something in the fridge, anything from burritos, to a chicken dish or a pasta.  It just depends what I feel like. I really sharpen up and eat healthy the rest of the week in the lead up to the next game.'  

 

Jessica Morrison - Athlete at Mercantile Rowing Club and VIS Rowing (previously AIS Swimming)

Favourite recovery meal: Smoothie (oats, FC milk, yoghurt, honey & chia seeds) & scrambled eggs on toast. 

Typically rowers burn a lot of energy in morning training so recovery nutrition needs are high.

'My smoothie takes two seconds to make, I enjoy it while I am making eggs. It's instantly satisfying & eggs provide good sustenance & I like something warm with a bit of protein after training. Sometimes I'll make the smoothie with chocolate milk & would normally have all of this after a morning row.

I eat to train, not train to eat!'

 

Madi Robinson - Athlete at Melbourne Vixens Netball Club and Australian Diamonds Team member

Favourite recovery meal: Varies!

Madi is super passionate about good nutrition and knows the benefits that eating well can bring for health and performance (check out Madi's great website by clicking on her name).

'Straight after a game I have a protein shake and two rick cakes with peanut butter and banana.  I then have my main meal within 2 hours of the game for home games and this can be:

Chicken burger with salad

OR

Fish or chicken with veggies (beans, broccoli, sweet potato) cob of corn

OR

Sweet potato - with chicken, beans, spinach & salad

To rehydrate, I have an SOS rehydrate sachet after matches to help replenish my fluid losses.  I sweat a lot and change dresses at half time so its important I not only get the right food into my body but also fluid as well to recover'.

 

Jessica Rothwell – Australian Race Walker and Accredited Practising Dietitian

Favourite recovery meal – Oats with yoghurt, fruit and toppings

Jess is a hard-working athlete, and knows a bit about nutrition being a dietitian herself.  Note the use of herbs and spices in her recovery meal.....

‘My favourite breakfast after a morning training session is milky soaked salted oats, heaped with natural yoghurt, blueberries, cinnamon & sprinkled with nuts & seeds.

I like to alternate the blueberries with grated apple or banana & use nutmeg, cocoa, vanilla bean or mint depending on the fruit! For additional energy I will add in tahini, honey or more nuts!

I enjoy this because its nutrient dense, providing nearly all 5 food groups, delicious & versatile! The dairy is helpful for maintaining my lean muscle mass, bone health, refueling & very hydrating.  

Bircher muesli is also convenient to transport in a portable container if you’re on the go & making a big batch is an effective way of saving time!’

 

Prue Rothwell – Cyclist with National Road Series team Bikebug – NextGen Racing

Recovery meal - Colourful vegetable/rice/protein bowl

Prue is passionate about wholefood nutrition, cycling and farmers' markets, a great combination for optimal recovery for an athlete.

Prue meal.jpg

'After a milk based recovery drink/yoghurt, when I’m ready for something more substantial I generally throw together something that is quick and colourful… a bowl of rice, 2x boiled eggs, cottage cheese, grated carrot, kohlrabi, beetroot, purple cabbage, leafy greens and chilli sauce…..plus some tuna or kangaroo if I want to add some meat!'

 

So many choices.....

As you can see, there is not one perfect recovery meal, a range of different foods can combine to create the right balance.  If you are keen to learn more about recovery and the best recovery foods you can have a look at one of my other blog posts Eat your way to muscle recovery - 5 of the best post-training meals. If you train early in the morning, pre-breakfast, then you may want to read about some of the more breakfast-specific recovery options at Best post-run breakfasts for recovery vs weight loss.

Or you can try Lisa Weightman's mum's recipe below!

Salmon Patties

Makes about 10 patties

Ingredients:

1 x 415g/14 oz can of salmon, drained and mashed with a fork

1/4 tsp salt

Cracked pepper

2 tbsp chopped parsley

½ medium onion, chopped

2 cups/400g cooked rice

White Sauce

55g/2 oz butter

1/3 cup/50g self-raising flour

1 cup/250ml low-fat milk

Coating

Cornflake crumbs

2 eggs, whisked

Olive oil for cooking

Method:

  1. Make the white sauce by melting the butter over a low heat in a small saucepan and adding the flour. Cook, stirring, for 3 minutes.
  2. Remove the pan from from heat and gradually add the milk while stirring continuously to avoid lumps. Return the pan to the  heat and stir continuously until thick.
  3. In a large bowl place the white sauce, salmon, salt and pepper to taste, onion, parsley and rice, mix together. Cover the bowl with cling wrap and leave in the fridge overnight.
  4. Roll the mixture into patties and coat with egg then roll in Corn Flake crumbs.
  5. Cook the patties in a non-stick pan with a little olive oil and serve with steamed vegetables.

 

 

 

 

The Great Sugar Con - why 'refined sugar-free' is a waste of time

It has raspberries, so it must be healthy.....

It has raspberries, so it must be healthy.....

‘Refined Sugar-Free, Gluten-Free Choc Caramel Cupcake’.  This was the latest ‘free-from’ delicacy that popped up on my screen, one of many that I see daily.  I can’t help but cringe, and rather than making me salivate these images just make me more and more agitated.  Refined sugar-free treats are everywhere, from raw slices, to bliss balls, to smoothies to cakes.   These creations look absolutely delicious and of course they are touted as guilt-free as well as sugar-free - but are they either?  They are often promoted by a celebrity or nutritionist or the latest sugar-free café or recipe book, to convince us of their goodness.  So how do the creators manage to formulate alternative options that are made from healthy ingredients and match the textures and taste of the real deal??  How is it possible to cut out all the wheat, animal products and sugar while achieving such remarkable taste, texture and visual results. 

Well, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news but we are all being conned - big time.  The reason these ‘free-from’ treats look and taste so superb is because in fact they do contain sugar, and often lots of it.  But how can that be so, when they are labelled sugar-free.  Look a little more closely – ‘refined sugar-free' does not equal free from sugar.  It simply means the sugar is not in the white powder form, everyday table sugar that is labelled as everything from dangerous to toxic.  But there is no limitation on the huge number of sugars that are considered ‘natural’, or not refined, and these are often used amply.    I’m sorry, but it is impossible to make a cupcake taste evenly remotely like a cupcake without adding sugar. 

Pick up many of the trendy low-sugar recipe books and you will find the widespread use of products like rice malt syrup, agave, coconut sugar, etc.  If you asked the cafes and bakers the ingredients of their ‘’free-from’’ caramel cupcakes you would most likely find the same thing.  I honestly don’t know how the promoters of these products feel comfortable, knowing that their products contain just as much sugar, if not more, than the traditional product counterparts.  Maybe because 'no sugar' sells.  Even if it is a misrepresentation, or in fact a blatant lie.

For example, just flicking through some online recipes from a well known nutritionist and quickly came across a Choc Coconut Cupcake recipe.  Sounds innocent enough, except that the recipe makes 15 and contains a whopping 3 cups of coconut sugar in the icing - nearly ¼ cup coconut sugar PER cupcake!  But it is still technically refined sugar-free.  Or another website about quitting sugar that simply uses rice malt syrup instead of white sugar to make it sugar-free. (For more details about what coconut sugar and rice malt syrup really are, have a read of my previous post The facts about sugar - are natural sugars really healthier than white?)  Education on Sugar 101 is seriously lacking.  The other downside is that many of these recipes can be complicated to make and you may be wasting your time and effort thinking you are making the healthier option.

Of course overconsumption of refined sugar is a serious problem.  I just read in the paper today some data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, that boys aged 14-18 years are consuming on average 92 grams per day (nearly 20 teaspoons) of free sugar (and 38 teaspoons/day in total), with much of this coming from soft drinks alone.  This is quite alarming considering that WHO recommends we aim for less than 12 teaspoons of free sugar, or less than 6 for dental health.  Products that contain pretty much just sugar with no other nutritional value, like soft drinks, are a major contributor to free sugar intake.  But if you think you are doing your best to reduce sugar by choosing the organic low-refined options you may not be doing yourself any favours.   Natural syrups and unrefined sugars are still considered free sugars, and although claimed to provide nutrients, the trace amounts are pretty much negligible (other than honey, but you still don’t’want to overdo it).  Perfect example, a small drizzle of honey on some porridge is not going to over-do your sugar intake for the day and can add to the enjoyment of an otherwise nutrient-dense meal.  However using honey in a refined sugar free choc honeycomb cupcake that is also loaded with other ‘natural’ sugars is probably not a great representation of a healthy option. 

Bottom line – many of us should reduce our total sugar intake, not just white sugar.  Think back 50 years where something sweet was enjoyed wholeheartedly on a special occasion, but not everyday.  When you do indulge, choose something you really like that is going to satisfy you.  If  the refined sugar-free raw raspberry slice from the vegan café does it for you then go for it, or you may be happier with a good old-fashioned piece of home-made cake now and again.  Choosing refined-sugar free does not guarantee lower sugar and higher nutrient content.  Don’t be fooled - most of the ‘refined sugar-free' treats should be treated the same as a piece of regular chocolate mud cake or a chocolate brownie.

If you love learning more about nutrition, please leave your details here and I will add you to my free newsletter, or you can follow me on FacebookTwitter or Instagram for regular nutrition updates.

Image by Whitney - originally posted to Flickr as Chocolate Cupcakes w/ Raspberry Buttercream, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10390035 (may or may not be refined sugar-free?)

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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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!