Can Cayenne Pepper Speed Up Your Metabolism?

cayenne peppers

Q: Is it true that cayenne pepper can rev up your metabolism and help you lose weight?

Maybe! The main ingredient in cayenne pepper is capsaicin, which gives the spice its strong and hot flavor. Capsaicin is also the active ingredient in many treatments for arthritis and muscle pain. Some research suggest that capsaicin acts as a thermogenic chemical, which can produce heat to stimulate your metabolism and help you burn fat.

Health benefits of cayenne pepper can include:

  • Relieves cold symptoms like congestion and sneezing.
  • May have antibacterial properties.
  • Contains antioxidants, like vitamin C, beta-carotene (a vitamin A precursor) and vitamin E.
  • Increases energy and reduces hunger.

Whether you’re looking to spice up a dish or help you lose weight, it’s easy to incorporate cayenne into your diet. Use it in rubs, sauces, stews and more. Sprinkle on soups, eggs, popcorn and sweet potato fries. Or try it with roasted chickpeas or chili.

7 Tips to Absorb More Nutrients from Your Food

All those greens you’re nomming? You might be missing the benefits if you’re making these mistakes.

In all likelihood, you think a lot more about eating foods than about digesting them. But that’s an oversight that can affect your overall nutrition and health, according to nutritionist Ashley Koff, Your diet may be full of berries, spinach, quinoa, and salmon, Koff says, but unless your body is efficiently breaking down and effectively absorbing those foods, you’re not getting their full benefits.

The digestive process is complex. It starts with enzymes in your saliva that break down the starches in your food as you chew. Acids in your stomach activate enzymes that dismantle proteins. Next, the food travels to the small intestine, which breaks down fats and absorbs most nutrients, which are ferried into your bloodstream, says Dr. Julia Greer, a professor and course director of digestion and nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

But along the way, problems arise: stress, dietary issues, food sensitivities, and even your workout can disrupt this process, preventing you from getting everything your food has to offer. That’s why it pays to be proactive about improving your digestion, experts say. Making a few tweaks to how you eat can add up to other key health benefits as well, including gaining energy, losing weight, feeling less bloated and regulating your bathroom trips. These tips will maximize your healthy eating efforts.

1. Slow Down

If you’re usually the first person to clear your plate, there’s a good chance you’re not chewing your meals thoroughly. That’s key because chewing breaks down food and activates enzymes in your mouth that help with digestion, says Dr. Woodson Merrell, an integrative medicine specialist in New York City. In fact, research from Purdue University found that when people chewed almonds 40 times, they absorbed more healthy fat than when they chewed them just 10 times, making nutrients like vitamin E more accessible. “Chewing breaks almonds’ cell walls so that it’s easier for us to digest them,” says study author Dr. Richard D. Mattes. You don’t have to count, though. Just chew until your food is a mushy consistency, Merrell says.

2. Calm Your Dining Scene

When you’re under pressure, your brain releases stress hormones that make your heart beat faster and give you a rush of adrenaline. The digestive process then slows down or stops so your body can devote all its energy to dealing with the stress. That’s why being anxious or even multitasking during meals can interfere with nutrient absorption, Koff says. So try to relax as much as possible when you dine. Put your computer to sleep instead of skimming headlines, and focus on your companions over dinner. Take the chance to savor each bite.

3. Ease Out On Workouts

Too many HIIT routines can also stress your digestive system. The physical effort of a tough workout causes your system to divert energy away from digestion, Koff says. Balance the hard-core sessions in your schedule with lower-key ones, like yoga, which can help keep your digestion on track. Vigorous exercise can also deplete your levels of magnesium, a mineral that’s critical for digestion; replenish it by eating beans, nuts, whole grains, and leafy greens.

4. Create Key Food Combos

Certain nutrients are better absorbed when they’re eaten together. For example, your body has a tough time taking in the type of iron found in vegetarian sources like spinach, but consuming it with a food rich in Vitamin C, like red bell pepper, makes the process easier. Fat-soluble Vitamins A, D, K, and E need fatty acids for absorption, so pair foods that are rich in these nutrients (many vegetables are) with a source of healthy fat, like nuts or oil. To get more calcium from your yogurt or kale, increase your intake of foods that are high in Vitamin D, such as salmon.

4. Take Stock Post-Meal

If certain dishes make you bloated or constipated or give you diarrhea, you could have a food sensitivity or intolerance, which is relatively common. For instance, about 65 percent of people worldwide are sensitive to lactose, the sugar found in dairy. High-fructose foods like grapes and bananas and those with gluten, like bread and pasta, are other possible culprits. The inflammation you experience when you eat those foods can inhibit nutrient absorption in your small intestine, Greer says. If you have any of these symptoms, ask your doctor about getting tested.

5. Sip Smarter

You’ve heard that you shouldn’t drink your calories, but now there is a major exception: It turns out that the body is better able to absorb nutrients from certain types of juice than from whole fruit. For instance, one study published in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research found that some carotenoids were almost twice as readily absorbed from orange juice than fresh oranges. The fiber in whole fruit may bind to certain micronutrients, keeping them from being absorbed in the small intestine, says study author Ralf Schweiggert, of the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany. But since fiber is key for overall health, he recommends having just one serving of fruit juice a day and eating the rest of your fruit whole.

You can also have a smoothie, which retains the fiber from fruits and vegetables but still improves absorption of certain nutrients, according to the Journal of Food Science. That’s because the blade of a high-speed blender breaks through the cell walls in foods better than chewing does, says study author José Miguel Aguilera of the Universidad Católica de Chile. Both Koff and Merrell advise their patients to drink vegetable smoothies.

6. Care For Your Guts

Up to 30 percent of the protein and carbs you eat reach your colon undigested, where your gut bacteria break them down, the journal Nutrition in Clinical Practice reports. But just a few days of a high-fat diet can disrupt the balance of good and bad bacteria in your system, throwing off this process. Consider a probiotic supplement to boost the number of good bugs whenever you’re off your usual diet routine for a few days. One probiotic strain, in particular, GanedenBC30, has been found to help your body break down proteins.

7. Try an enzyme

There will be times when your digestion is thrown off track, like on vacation. That’s when digestive enzyme supplements can help. These pills work just like your body’s own enzymes to help break food down so you can absorb the nutrients more easily, Koff says.

The Best Ways to Fuel Your Workouts Might Surprise You

You’re committed to regular workouts, hitting your groove with daily cardio. Perhaps you’ve discovered the joy of rushing endorphins filling your brain after a morning run or Pilates has transformed your life. But to truly hit your fitness goals, it’s important to also reevaluate how you fuel your body — both before and after you exercise.

Regardless of whether you want to burn fat or build muscle, you’ll need three things to help your muscles recover: good carbs, lean protein and plenty of water, says Kate Patton MEd, RD, LD, CSSD.

1. Protein: Not all shakes are created equal

When it comes to protein shakes, Patton says, “They’re portable and convenient to drink immediately after your workout, but be sure to choose a quality product.”

The Food and Drug Administration does not test the for the safety and efficacy of dietary supplements. Be sure to buy products that are third party certified, which means an outside company has tested the ingredients to ensure they match the label and that they do not contain banned substances or fillers.

Also check to see how much added sugar it contains. Many store-bought shakes are loaded with sugar. The best kinds? They’re the ones you make at home from fresh ingredients and whole foods.

“I recommend a homemade shake include a protein source (powder, milk, yogurt, kefir), fruit, vegetable, and healthy fat source (nuts, seeds, avocado),” says Patton.

She says it’s okay to add some optional extras, but to make sure they include minimal added sweetness from honey/agave/maple syrup or other flavor enhancers like vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, or turmeric.

But don’t limit yourself to shakes. “There are many protein-rich snacks like yogurt, cheese, nuts and even hummus, you can pack in your bag for post-workout,” says Patton.

Other good, lean protein options include:

  • Fish.
  • Chicken.
  • Turkey.
  • Eggs.
  • Dairy.
  • Tofu.
  • Beans.
  • Nuts.
  • Seeds.

2. Carbs: Here’s the truth

Another misconception is that the best way to fuel your body is with protein. Carbs — specifically complex carbs (not simple carbs) — are found in fruits, veggies and grains, and they play an important role in helping your body recover post-workout.

Exercise also naturally lowers blood sugar, and if it lowers too quickly or too low, you could become hypoglycemic. That’s why carbs are important to refuel and recover from a tough workout.

“You need some carbs to prevent muscle breakdown,” says Patton.

So, how do these carbs differ?

Simple carbs: These carbs have one or two sugars in them. Think sweets: candy, sugar, cakes and cookies. These should be avoided when you’re trying to get fit except for special occasions or an indulgent treat.

Complex carbs: As their name suggests, these carbs have three or more sugars in them and they’re important post-workout. “Your body needs complex carbs to rebuild glycogen stores that are important for recovery,” says Patton. Complex carbs also take longer to digest and aid in digestion because they often contain fiber.

Some complex carb options:

  • Brown rice.
  • Whole-grain pasta.
  • Whole-wheat bread or cereal.
  • Sweet potatoes.
  • Fruit.
  • Milk.
  • Yogurt.

3. Water: Not just for hydration

You need plenty of water before, during and after your workout. One study found you perform your best when you consume between 400 to 600 ml of water pre-workout. Not only that, researchers found athletes’ perceived effort remained lowest when water they consumed closely matched how much they lost through sweating. In other words, the more you drink, the easier your workout feels.

Drinking water does so much more than put liquids back into your body after you sweat. Patton notes It also replenishes electrolytes, sodium and glucose when you exercise.

But what’s more, water helps regulate your body temperature so you can cool down after that workout. It also helps ward off muscle cramps, removes toxins from your body and transports nutrients to parts of your body that need it most after expending so much energy.

Should you eat before your workout?

The short answer is, yes! But here’s why.

Food is your body’s fuel just as gasoline is to your car. The comparison may be cliche, but it’s true. If you’re running on empty, you’re not likely to bang out a strong workout.

“Before any workout, it’s best to consume some complex carbohydrates 2-4 hours before for sustained energy,” says Patton. She suggests eating a good balance of protein plus carbs for energy. Oatmeal or yogurt with fruit and nuts are two prime options.

If exercising for less than 60 minutes, it is okay to exercise on an empty stomach in the morning, but don’t go all day without eating and then try to exercise.

And how soon after you’re done working out should you eat?

If you’re ravenous when you cross the finish line or do that last set of reps, there’s a good scientific basis for that. Eating within 30 to 60 minutes of your workout is critical to help with muscle repair. But keep in mind: Any post-workout meal should contain a mix of carbohydrates and protein.

“Anyone whose goal is to build strength and muscle should eat a 2:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein to ensure adequate muscle repair and recovery,” says Patton. “If you’re a high endurance athlete, we typically recommend a 4:1 ration of carbohydrates to protein.”

More of a casual exerciser or age 50+? A good ratio is 3:1.

Daily meal plan ideas

As you begin to make healthy changes to your lifestyle, you may be baffled by how to approach meal-planning. After all, even good-for-you changes are sometimes a bit unfathomable.

Breakfast – “Aim to eat enough protein, such as eggs and whole-grain bread,” says Patton. “Another option is Greek yogurt with bran cereal and fruit on top, or toast with peanut butter or nut butter and banana. Or try a fruit smoothie,” says Patton.

Lunch – At mid-day, include a protein source, a few more carbs and vegetables. For example, you may want to try a piece of chicken or tuna with cucumbers and peppers on the side, along with some fruit. Including some good fats into your lunch will help carry you through until dinner time.

Snacks – Finally, before you hit the gym or head outside for a run, grab something with complex carbs, like an apple.

Dinner – A lean protein source, like salmon, which is packed with omega-3 fatty acids, coupled with additional good carbs, such as quinoa or sweet potato and a salad should carry you through until bedtime.

Remember: Healthy food choices don’t have to be bland or tasteless. Looking at food as fuel for your most important asset — your body — will help guide you toward making healthy choices. And, as always, be sure to consult with your doctor before starting any exercise program.

How to Prevent Leg Cramps and Treat Them at Home

man stretching legs after exercising

Painful leg cramps aren’t just annoying episodes of discomfort. Because they typically occur at night, they can wake you, interrupting necessary rest and sleep.

Complicating matters is the fact there are such a wide variety of causes for leg cramps, from overexertion to neurological conditions to circulation disorders. And there are idiopathic causes, too, which essentially means the causes are unknown.

But just because they’re widespread and have so many causes doesn’t mean there aren’t good prevention and treatment options. Family medicine doctor Matthew Goldman, MD, walked us through the best options and also suggested some things to avoid.

Leg cramp prevention

While it’s unlikely you’ll be able to totally prevent leg cramps, there are definitely actions you can take that will lower your risk of some of the more common causes for those aches and pains.

Hydration

One big cause of leg cramps — and muscle cramps in general — is dehydration. In general, you should be drinking at least 6 to 8 glasses of water every day, according to Dr. Goldman, but it’s recommended to increase your intake if you’re active, especially outside.

Typically, the goal should be to keep urine clear. If urine becomes yellow, amber, orange, etc, this is an indication you may be dehydrated and probably need to increase water intake.

Another way to avoid dehydration is to limit the amount of alcohol and caffeine you take in.

Speak to your provider further if you are concerned about urine color and/or dehydration.

Exercise care

Overexertion and other parts of your exercise routine could also contribute to leg cramps but there are ways to combat this.

First, Dr. Goldman says you should make sure you’ve got the right fit for shoes and properly support your feet. Whether it’s dealing with a high or low arch, the type of midsole a shoe has, or the need for stability, picking the right running shoes can have a huge impact on your body.

Next, be sure you’re properly stretching both before and after exercise. Stretching, especially dynamic stretching, helps warm your muscles up and gets them prepared for whatever activity you’re about to do and proper stretching can keep them from cramping both during exercise and later.

One stretch, in particular, can help prevent leg cramps in your calves. Standing about three feet away from a wall, lean forward and touch the wall with your outstretched arms but keep your feet flat. Hold this position and count to five and then relaxing. Repeat this stretch for up to five minutes at a time, three times a day.

Bedtime prep

Finally, there are some bedtime things you can make part of your nighttime routine to help prevent leg cramps since they’re most likely to occur at night. Dr. Goldman suggests some gentle leg stretches or even mild exercise, like a walk or short bike ride, right before bed.

But there are also things you can do for your sleep that might help, including adjusting your sleep position. If you sleep on your back, try using pillows to keep your toes pointed upwards. And if you sleep on your stomach, try hanging your feet off the end of the bed. Both of these positions can help keep you in a relaxed position while you sleep, he adds.

At-home treatment of leg cramps

Leg cramps are unpleasant and often painful so you want to get rid of them as soon as you can. While there’s nothing that’s guaranteed to immediately end a leg cramp, there are several ways to help alleviate the cramp.

Stretching and other activities

One easy way to alleviate leg cramps once they happen is, yes, stretching. One stretch Dr. Goldman suggests: while standing (or sitting with your leg unfolded before you), straighten your leg and lift your foot until your toes are pointing at your shin, then pull on your toes if you are able to reach them or use a towel for assistance if unable to reach.

Other activities like walking and wiggling your legs as you do may help shake out those cramps. You can also try massaging the cramping muscles with your hands or a roller. And, finally, you can also try standing and pressing your feet against the floor to stretch out those cramping muscles.

Hot and cold

A big change in temperature could help out those cramping muscles, according to Dr. Goldman. In addition to stretching, adding heat to your cramping muscles with either a heating pad or a warm bath can help relax and increase blood flow to the cramping muscle(s).

Conversely, an ice pack can help ease the pain of a leg cramp while you wait for it to subside. Just be sure to wrap the ice in a towel or other piece of material so that the ice doesn’t make direct contact with your skin.

Medication

Over-the-counter painkillers won’t make the cramping immediately go away, but ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and/or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help ease the pain associated with the cramps. Speak with your provider first about whether or not these medications are safe for you.

5 Healthy Habits That Prevent Chronic Disease

From social media influencers to great aunt Bess, everyone has an opinions about the best habits for a healthy lifestyle. But whether you’ve gone all-in on apple cider vinegar or think the latest health fads are all hype, the choices you make can have long-term health consequences.

“Healthy lifestyle habits can slow or even reverse the damage from high cholesterol or high blood sugar,” says lifestyle medicine specialist Mladen Golubic, MD, PhD. “You can reverse diabetes, obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol and heart disease.”

Here, he sifts through the noise to help you choose the best lifestyle habits to prevent chronic diseases.

How lifestyle affects your health

The leading causes of death worldwide are chronic diseases, Dr. Golubic says. And they include the usual suspects:

  • Cancer.
  • Cardiovascular disease.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Diabetes.
  • Stroke.

But you can prevent many of these chronic conditions by addressing their root cause: daily habits. About 80% of chronic diseases are driven by lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise, he says.

How to prevent lifestyle diseases

To prevent chronic disease, Dr. Golubic recommends adjusting your habits in these five areas:

1. Diet

His advice is straightforward: Eat plants that are whole, unrefined and minimally processed. Eating plant-based foods helps reduce diabetes, heart disease and cancer risk.

There is evidence that the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases. This diet is rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains fish, olive oil and nuts.

Other evidence suggests that consuming a fully plant-based diet can even reverse chronic, diet-related conditions, including advanced heart disease. This diet eliminates meat, dairy and eggs and includes whole foods such as vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fruits. It is the most compassionate and the most sustainable diet, Dr. Golubic says, and the one he recommends most.

“I suggest you experiment. You don’t have to go fully vegan tomorrow,” he says.

“Avoid refined and processed plant foods.  Start by preparing one new plant-based meal a week.”

2. Physical activity

Moving helps all your body’s systems. Experts recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week.

If that seems daunting, Dr. Golubic recommends starting small. “Most of us can walk. So start with a 10-minute walk. Repeat this two or three times a day,” he says. “Then try to walk faster, have a minute of more intense walking or climb a flight of stairs. If walking is not an option, any physical activity will do. Simply move more and sit less.”

3. Sleep

Shoot for seven to nine hours of restful sleep each night. But if you just can’t help burning the midnight oil, try to:

  • Have a consistent bedtime and wake time, even on the weekends.
  • Be physically active daily. (Sense a theme?)
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine.
  • Put digital devices away 90 minutes before bedtime.
  • Keep your sleep area cool, dark and comfortable.

4. Stress relief

Chronic stress is not your immune system’s friend. Try mindfulness, meditation and gratitude to relieve stress and improve your physical and mental health.

“We tend to self-medicate with food, but there are healthier ways to relieve our stress, worries and concerns,” Dr. Golubic says.

Mindfulness: Mindfulness is the state of being more present and aware of what you sense, feel and experience. It’s a great way to cope with stress and relax.

Dr. Golubic suggests two ways to master mindfulness:

  • Practice daily: The key is to schedule it. Find a quiet place. Observe your body movements as you breathe — how your belly expands and shrinks, or how the air flows in and out of your nostrils. “The key is to observe — don’t try to change the depth of inhalation or frequency of breathing. Let your body do what it normally does more than 20,000 times per day,” he says. Start with five minutes per day and work up to 20 minutes.
  • Pay attention to the present moment throughout the day: For example, when brushing your teeth, brush like it’s your first time. “Using your nondominant hand may help you pay better attention,” Dr. Golubic says. “You can even practice mindfulness while taking out the garbage, washing the dishes or noticing your breath while you wait for the light to turn green. Any activity where you remember to pay attention can be a mindfulness practice.”

Meditation: If you’re new to the practice, 4×4 breathing, or box breathing, is a great place to start. Here’s how it works:

  1. Sit up straight and relaxed in a comfortable, quiet location.
  2. Breathe out slowly, being mindful about releasing all the air from your lungs.
  3. Breathe in through your nose as you slowly count to four in your head. Be conscious of how the air fills your lungs and stomach.
  4. Hold your breath for a count of four (or less, for a count you can comfortably hold).
  5. Exhale for another count of four.
  6. Hold your breath again for a count of four.
  7. Repeat.

Do this for five minutes three times a week, building up to 20 minutes a day.

Gratitude: Practicing gratitude is a good antidote for stress as well. In studies, burned-out healthcare workers who performed acts of gratitude — such as remembering three good things or writing gratitude letters — reported positive effects on their well-being after a few weeks.

“Throughout our days we tend to notice more things that are not going well and pay little attention to positive moments,” Dr. Golubic says. “We are likely to feel better when, in the midst of a hectic day, we recognize and remind ourselves about all the gifts we have in life.”

5. Social connectedness

Social connectedness, or loving people, keeps you emotionally and physically healthy. Even when physical distancing is the norm, virtual connections can be transformative.

“We have tremendous access to technology to help us avoid social isolation,” Dr. Golubic says. “Almost everybody has a cell phone, so you can be in touch with people and tell them how you feel about them. Even work emails signed, ‘I hope you’re OK,’ or, ‘stay well,’ make a difference.”

Why is it so hard to make healthy lifestyle changes?

There are a few reasons it can be hard to get a handle on our habits, including:

  • A lack of access to healthy options: A drive down the street reveals the convenient truth: cheap, unhealthy fast-food options everywhere you look. This can make it hard to make good choices. “Spain has fruterías (stores that sell only fruits and vegetables) on every other corner. They’re open until late in the evening. Imagine if those stores were more common than fried food places,” Dr. Golubic says.
  • Too many subliminal messages: “Subliminal messages can sabotage good lifestyle habits,” he says. “For example, think about advertisements showing beautiful people eating unhealthy foods. Or the images of yoga poses featuring young people instead of those who need yoga the most — older people with two to four chronic conditions.”
  • An instant gratification culture: It can take weeks to months to make something a habit — and sometimes longer to see the benefits of those changes. “When implementing healthy lifestyle changes, we have to be patient,” Dr. Golubic concludes.

How to maintain healthy lifestyle habits long-term

To make healthy habits stick, Dr. Golubic suggests you:

  • Take small steps: “Do evolution rather than revolution,” he says. “Choose achievable goals. Start with listening to a meditation tracks for five minutes three times a week and continue adding more days and minutes as you are making progress.”
  • Set realistic expectations: Avoid being too critical of yourself.  Embrace the saying, “progress not perfection.”
  • Educate yourself: Learn the science behind opinions. Seek advice from professional medical associations, such as the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, Medical Society of Clinical Oncology and American College of Lifestyle Medicine.
  • Think big picture: Those who reflect on what’s important to them and how they fit into a larger whole have better results. “Food choices are spectacular examples,” Dr. Golubic says. “It takes an enormous amount of energy and production of greenhouse gases and land and water use to produce a pound of beef compared to a pound of beans. So our food choices not only affect our health but the well-being of all life on the planet.”

Can Face Masks Cause Health Problems?

Q: We’ve seen social media posts that speak to masks affecting our health in negative ways. Should we be concerned?

A: There can be behavioral reasons (young children, psychiatric illness, autism, claustrophobia, etc.) for why individuals might not tolerate a mask or not understand the reason for wearing one. This is especially true with small children. When it comes to them, the CDC doesn’t recommend putting masks on children under the age of two because they aren’t capable of removing them and they could suffocate.

At the Respiratory Institute, we’ve taken the position that there is virtually no circumstance that warrants an exemption from wearing a mask based on lung disease. Exceptions come along with the risk of individuals endangering themselves and everyone around them. But we have a collective responsibility to make sure that we are not placing our community in harm’s way.

Many patients with significant respiratory issues are able to wear masks without difficulty. Even patients on the lung transplant waiting list who arguably have the severest forms of advanced lung disease are able to wear masks. If they can do it, anybody can.

As for CO2 retention, I have not seen any evidence for it with any mask type, including N95 masks. It certainly does not apply to cloth masks or any masks that do not provide a tight seal.

⚊ Answered by Pulmonologist Raed Dweik, MD

The Best Oil, Fish and Cheese Options for Your Heart

The Best Oil, Fish and Cheese Options for Your Heart

Sometimes it seems like a world of endless food choices. But even for those of us who have settled on a particular way of eating — such as the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet — there are many decisions still to be made. Extra virgin olive oil, or virgin olive oil? Salmon or sea bass?

The Mediterranean diet is based on ingredients from plant sources and minimally processed foods, including olive oil, fish and legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables, skinless poultry and low-fat dairy.

Many cardiologists, dietitians and other health care professionals say the Mediterranean diet is the gold standard of heart-healthy diets, says Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, a registered dietitian in Cleveland Clinic’s section of Preventive Cardiology. But, she says, there are some important details to which you should pay attention.

Here are Ms. Zumpano’s tips for eating well within the Mediterranean diet.

Options for olive oil

Olive oil is a primary source of fat in the Mediterranean diet, but there are several kinds.  So should you go with light, virgin or extra virgin olive oil?

“Extra virgin olive oil is the best choice because it’s the least processed compared with other oil grades, including light and virgin,” Zumpano says.

Olive oil is produced by grinding olives and extracting the oil by mechanical or chemical means. The word virgin means the oil was produced by the use of mechanical means only.

Extra virgin olive oil, or EVOO, is of higher quality. Among other attributes, it contains no more than 0.8 percent free acidity, and is judged to have a superior taste. EVOO also has a higher nutritional content, with antioxidants that have been linked with better health.

The best use of extra virgin olive oil, which is the most expensive grade, is at room temperature, such as in salad dressings, Zumpano says.

Be careful when cooking with extra virgin olive oil at high temperates, due to its medium-high smoke point.

The smoke point is the temperature that causes oil to start smoking, which produces toxic fumes and harmful free radicals. Different oils have different smoke points, due to their chemical make-up. This means some oils are better suited for cooking at higher temperatures than others. A good rule of thumb is that the more refined the oil, the higher the smoke point.

Heating EVOO higher than 300 degrees can cause oxidation, which kills antioxidants and may create some toxins such as acrylamide, she says.

Acrylamide is a chemical that has been found in certain foods, with especially high levels in potato chips, French fries and other food products produced by high-temperature cooking.

“If you’re going to heat olive oil, do so at the lowest temperature possible and use a more refined version of olive oil such as light, fine, virgin or pure, which is a blend of refined and virgin,” she says. “Or try a more stable oil at high heat such as sunflower, sesame or corn oil.”

Finding fish

Fish and skinless poultry take the place of red meat with the Mediterranean diet.  If you’re trying to decide between the two, fish is the hands-down winner when it comes to your heart. But the type of fish does make a difference.

“Omega-3 fatty fish, like salmon and tuna, have been proven to be the most beneficial,” Zumpano says.  “Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help lower blood pressure and swelling.”

Omega-3 fatty fish also lower your triglyceride levels, which keep the lining of your arteries smooth, allowing your blood to flow well. Other omega-3 fatty fish include mackerel, herring, sardines and lake trout.

Omega-3 fatty fish also lower triglyceride levels, which keep the lining of your arteries smooth, allowing your blood to flow well.

Other white-fleshed fish are a good second choice as they tend to be low in cholesterol or saturated fat. Think sea bass, pollock, catfish and grouper.

Shellfish also can be included in your diet regularly, but be mindful of how they are prepared or what you are dipping them in — avoid butter or cream sauces, Zumpano says.

Choosing cheese

Cheese is a supplement of the Mediterranean diet. But as anyone who has stood in the grocery store’s cheese section knows well, the options can seem unlimited.

The best choice of all is to use cheese sparingly, Ms. Zumpano says. While cheese is a good source of calcium and protein, it’s also a hefty source of saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol, which negatively affects your cardiovascular health.

Approach cheese as you would a seasoning, Ms. Zumpano says. Rather than using it as the main ingredient in a dish, use it to top salads or add a bit of flavor, she says.

Stay away when the label says “cheese product,”  a processed food that contains a slew of artificial ingredients and hydrogenated oils. Natural cheeses, such as ricotta, fresh or part skim mozzarella and feta are best.

An even healthier version of a natural cheese would be one that is reduced-fat, meaning made with 2 percent or part skim milk. The labels on these cheeses usually have the words light, low-fat, 2 percent or reduced fat. Be mindful of ingredients to be sure that the fat is not being replaced with artificial ingredients, salt or unacceptable oils.

The color of olives

This one’s easy – it’s all in the flavor, Ms. Zumpano says. Choose whichever one pleases your palate.

If you’re watching sodium, it’s best to choose water-cured for the lowest in sodium. Some olives may have more sodium than others based on how they were processed or cured.

5 Veggies That Don’t Deserve the Hype

First, let’s set the record straight — you really can’t go wrong with vegetables. They’re a highly nutritious food group that offer a huge variety of flavors and benefits. That’s why dietitians, doctors and nutritionists recommend them as a key part of every healthy diet.

That said, it’s also fair to say some veggies pack a bigger nutritional punch than others.

If you’re wondering which ones might not be at the top of our list, check out the following vegetables many dietitians would probably downplay in favor of other more nourishing options.

1. Sweet corn is simply too starchy

“It may be colorful and sweet and we look forward to it when it’s in season, but unfortunately sweet corn is also one of the starchiest veggies out there,” says clinical dietitian Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD.

“Corn has some nutritional value like fiber, folate, vitamin C and potassium. But your body sees and reacts to sweet corn similarly to the way it reacts to bread, which is not great from a metabolic standpoint.”

When you’re looking to add more veggies to your diet there’s a whole spectrum of better options out there than corn.

If you’re not ready to give up corn just yet, at least try to be mindful of what you’re putting on top of it. “Try to limit your portion of butter and salt.There are healthy toppings with higher nutritional value instead of the butter and salt duo we often turn to,” she says.

2. Take the spotlight off of kale

“Kale is good for you, but somewhere down the line kale received a superstar status that overtook all the other great veggies like broccoli, beets, Brussels sprouts and Swiss chard,” Patton says.

While kale is great, variety is even better, she adds. Kale can also be an acquired taste and can be hard to incorporate into meals. And for many people, digesting kale is a struggle.

There are lots of dark, leafy greens you can turn to instead that contain nutrients similar to kale. Swapping those into your diet gives you the same nutritional value, plus so much more to choose from. Patton suggests adding in leafy greens and lettuces like:

  • Spinach.
  • Collard greens.
  • Mustard greens.
  • Arugula.
  • Swiss chard
  • Rapini (broccoli rabe).
  • Red and green leaf lettuce.
  • Romaine.

3. Put the squeeze on vegetable juices

Store-bought vegetable juices may give you a good amount of vitamins and minerals. But in a lot of cases you’re missing all the benefits of the fiber and extra nutrients found in their skins.

You may also be getting extra additives and sugar or salt you don’t need.

Instead, try making your own homemade smoothies that incorporate fresh vegetables from your fridge. Use cruciferous vegetables like shredded cabbage or broccolibok choy that really pack that nutritional punch.

“Cruciferous vegetables are nutrient-rich and contain glucosinolates, an anti-inflammatory phytonutrient linked to reduced risk of cancer,” Patton says.

4. Add on to your iceberg lettuce

“This pale lettuce falls short of the reputation of its darker-hued cousins and contains fewer vitamins and phytonutrients,” Patton says.

“But some lettuce is better than no lettuce at all, provided you don’t slather it with high-saturated fat ranch, Caesar or bleu cheese dressings.”

Love iceberg lettuce salads? That’s fine. Just pump up the nutrition, she suggests. Add in a variety of other chopped veggies like:

  • Darker leafy greens like spinach or mixed spring greens.
  • Red bell peppers.
  • Grated carrots.
  • Cucumbers.
  • Grape tomatoes.

“Then dress your new mixture instead with red wine vinegar and one teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil. You’ll feel much better about making your iceberg lettuce intake a little more on the nutritional side.”

5. Pass on those potatoes

“From a nutritional perspective these starchy vegetables have potential be unhealthy depending on how they are prepared.  For example, fried French fries, fried hash browns, scalloped and mashed potatoes are loaded with extra fat calories which diminish their nutritional value,” Patton says.

“You have to be careful when they are eaten without all the extras, too.  While potatoes contain fiber and potassium, they also cause a much faster spike in blood sugar levels than non-starchy vegetables like kale or broccoli,” she emphasizes.

A recent study suggests that replacing one serving of potatoes (boiled, baked, mashed or French fries) with one serving of non-starchy vegetables (spinach, peppers or onions, for example) can lower your risk of hypertension.

Variety is the vibe to go for

Dietitians agree that veggie variety is key. So don’t be afraid to try new vegetables instead of the ones you’re used to. The hype may outweigh the benefits. Switch things up and you’ll be consuming a wider variety of nutrients, and your diet will be a whole lot more colorful!

Celery Will Help Bring Your High Blood Pressure Down

At almost every turn, science and medicine reveal a new “superfood” that will dramatically improve our health. Chia seeds can reduce your cholesterol. Green leafy vegetables burn belly fat. Blueberries boost your antioxidants.

Now, the latest in wonder snacking – celery seeds to lower your high blood pressure (HBP). But does it really work?

“It’s no secret that plants offer vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants to help you maintain good health, but it’s a mistake to think you can eat only those substances as supplements and really get the same benefits,” according to Kenneth Shafer, MD, Department of Cardiovascular Medicine.

A plant’s isolated nutrients and other compounds work together to improve health, but we don’t really know why or how they do it.

A recent study did find that taking celery seed extract improved BP levels in patients who had mild to moderate elevations. But for the most part, research indicates taking plant extracts offers little to no benefit and can sometimes cause harm. “For this reason, it makes sense to simply eat the whole food, including celery,” Dr. Shafer says.

Worried about BP?

Your BP measures the force your heart exerts to pump blood around your body. The higher your pressure, the harder your heart is working.

If your pressure is high enough, it can damage your blood vessels, as well as your heart, kidneys, eyes and brain. It can also put you at greater risk for coronary heart disease, stroke, heart failure and blindness.

“Any BP over 140/90 is considered high, but if you have diabetes or chronic kidney disease, keep your levels below 130/80. Limiting your sodium intake to below 1,500 mg can help control your BP,” Dr. Shafer says.

Celery for lower BP

Celery contains a phytochemical called phthalides. As an extract, it’s called NBP, and it relaxes the tissues of the artery walls to increase blood flow and reduce blood pressure.

Eating the whole food, though, is better. Celery stalk salt content is low, and you also get fiber, magnesium and potassium to help regulate your blood pressure, as well.

“To get the benefit, you should eat roughly four stalks – one cup, chopped – of celery daily,” Dr. Shafer says.

DASH diet

Celery alone won’t bring down your BP.

Most major health organizations, including the Cleveland Clinic and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, recommend the DASH Diet, a nutrition program targeted at lowering BP and the risk of cardiovascular disease.

“A diet based largely on plants is ideal,” Dr. Shafer says.

By eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, seeds, nuts and vegetable oils, you get the potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber, protein and limited sodium needed to control your BP. You should also restrict sweets, sugary beverages and red meats.

The Best Ways to Fuel Your Workouts Might Surprise You

You’re committed to regular workouts, hitting your groove with daily cardio. Perhaps you’ve discovered the joy of rushing endorphins filling your brain after a morning run or Pilates has transformed your life. But to truly hit your fitness goals, it’s important to also reevaluate how you fuel your body — both before and after you exercise.

Regardless of whether you want to burn fat or build muscle, you’ll need three things to help your muscles recover: good carbs, lean protein and plenty of water, says Kate Patton MEd, RD, LD, CSSD.

1. Protein: Not all shakes are created equal

When it comes to protein shakes, Patton says, “They’re portable and convenient to drink immediately after your workout, but be sure to choose a quality product.”

The Food and Drug Administration does not test the for the safety and efficacy of dietary supplements. Be sure to buy products that are third party certified, which means an outside company has tested the ingredients to ensure they match the label and that they do not contain banned substances or fillers.

Also check to see how much added sugar it contains. Many store-bought shakes are loaded with sugar. The best kinds? They’re the ones you make at home from fresh ingredients and whole foods.

“I recommend a homemade shake include a protein source (powder, milk, yogurt, kefir), fruit, vegetable, and healthy fat source (nuts, seeds, avocado),” says Patton.

She says it’s okay to add some optional extras, but to make sure they include minimal added sweetness from honey/agave/maple syrup or other flavor enhancers like vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, or turmeric.

But don’t limit yourself to shakes. “There are many protein-rich snacks like yogurt, cheese, nuts and even hummus, you can pack in your bag for post-workout,” says Patton.

Other good, lean protein options include:

  • Fish.
  • Chicken.
  • Turkey.
  • Eggs.
  • Dairy.
  • Tofu.
  • Beans.
  • Nuts.
  • Seeds.

2. Carbs: Here’s the truth

Another misconception is that the best way to fuel your body is with protein. Carbs — specifically complex carbs (not simple carbs) — are found in fruits, veggies and grains, and they play an important role in helping your body recover post-workout.

Exercise also naturally lowers blood sugar, and if it lowers too quickly or too low, you could become hypoglycemic. That’s why carbs are important to refuel and recover from a tough workout.

“You need some carbs to prevent muscle breakdown,” says Patton.

So, how do these carbs differ?

Simple carbs: These carbs have one or two sugars in them. Think sweets: candy, sugar, cakes and cookies. These should be avoided when you’re trying to get fit except for special occasions or an indulgent treat.

Complex carbs: As their name suggests, these carbs have three or more sugars in them and they’re important post-workout. “Your body needs complex carbs to rebuild glycogen stores that are important for recovery,” says Patton. Complex carbs also take longer to digest and aid in digestion because they often contain fiber.

Some complex carb options:

  • Brown rice.
  • Whole-grain pasta.
  • Whole-wheat bread or cereal.
  • Sweet potatoes.
  • Fruit.
  • Milk.
  • Yogurt.

3. Water: Not just for hydration

You need plenty of water before, during and after your workout. One study found you perform your best when you consume between 400 to 600 ml of water pre-workout. Not only that, researchers found athletes’ perceived effort remained lowest when water they consumed closely matched how much they lost through sweating. In other words, the more you drink, the easier your workout feels.

Drinking water does so much more than put liquids back into your body after you sweat. Patton notes It also replenishes electrolytes, sodium and glucose when you exercise.

But what’s more, water helps regulate your body temperature so you can cool down after that workout. It also helps ward off muscle cramps, removes toxins from your body and transports nutrients to parts of your body that need it most after expending so much energy.

Should you eat before your workout?

The short answer is, yes! But here’s why.

Food is your body’s fuel just as gasoline is to your car. The comparison may be cliche, but it’s true. If you’re running on empty, you’re not likely to bang out a strong workout.

“Before any workout, it’s best to consume some complex carbohydrates 2-4 hours before for sustained energy,” says Patton. She suggests eating a good balance of protein plus carbs for energy. Oatmeal or yogurt with fruit and nuts are two prime options.

If exercising for less than 60 minutes, it is okay to exercise on an empty stomach in the morning, but don’t go all day without eating and then try to exercise.

And how soon after you’re done working out should you eat?

If you’re ravenous when you cross the finish line or do that last set of reps, there’s a good scientific basis for that. Eating within 30 to 60 minutes of your workout is critical to help with muscle repair. But keep in mind: Any post-workout meal should contain a mix of carbohydrates and protein.

“Anyone whose goal is to build strength and muscle should eat a 2:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein to ensure adequate muscle repair and recovery,” says Patton. “If you’re a high endurance athlete, we typically recommend a 4:1 ration of carbohydrates to protein.”

More of a casual exerciser or age 50+? A good ratio is 3:1.

Daily meal plan ideas

As you begin to make healthy changes to your lifestyle, you may be baffled by how to approach meal-planning. After all, even good-for-you changes are sometimes a bit unfathomable.

Breakfast – “Aim to eat enough protein, such as eggs and whole-grain bread,” says Patton. “Another option is Greek yogurt with bran cereal and fruit on top, or toast with peanut butter or nut butter and banana. Or try a fruit smoothie,” says Patton.

Lunch – At mid-day, include a protein source, a few more carbs and vegetables. For example, you may want to try a piece of chicken or tuna with cucumbers and peppers on the side, along with some fruit. Including some good fats into your lunch will help carry you through until dinner time.

Snacks – Finally, before you hit the gym or head outside for a run, grab something with complex carbs, like an apple.

Dinner – A lean protein source, like salmon, which is packed with omega-3 fatty acids, coupled with additional good carbs, such as quinoa or sweet potato and a salad should carry you through until bedtime.

Remember: Healthy food choices don’t have to be bland or tasteless. Looking at food as fuel for your most important asset — your body — will help guide you toward making healthy choices. And, as always, be sure to consult with your doctor before starting any exercise program.