Thursday, January 31, 2013

Top 10 Foods to Buy Organic

Do you really want THIS to be on your food?
Image: Shutterstock
Buying all organic can get expensive sometimes; at some stores it may even be impossible. If you fall into the same category as most Americans, you might need to pick and choose which foods you buy organic and which you don’t. These ten produce items have been found by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to be the most likely to contain pesticide contamination, which makes it a wise choice to buy organic:

It's best to buy your apples organic.
Image: msr via Flickr CC
  1. Apples
  2. Celery
  3. Sweet Bell Peppers
  4. Peaches
  5. Strawberries
  6. Nectarines (imported)
  7. Grapes
  8. Spinach
  9. Lettuce
  10. Cucumbers

Green Beans, Kale, and collard greens were also listed as foods that contained pesticides of particular concern—they were commonly contaminated with “highly toxic organophosphate insecticides,” which are toxic to the nervous system. This information comes from the EWG’s 2012 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™.

Consumption of food with pesticides can cause serious health problems, such as birth defects, nerve damage, cancer, and more. Of course, these effects directly relate to how much is consumed and how toxic that particular pesticide is. Children are especially sensitive to pesticides because their bodies are still developing and they eat a greater percentage of their body weight in food than adults do.

Strawberries were among the most contaminated.
Strawberries were among the most contaminated.
Image: Shutterstock
While eating one strawberry with trace amounts of pesticide might not do much harm, constantly consuming contaminated foods could become a problem. Steering clear of non-organic brands of the above produce will help keep you and your family out of harm’s way. My next posting will continue this topic with a list of foods that have been found to contain the least amount of pesticides.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Do Late Lunches Mean Less Weight Loss?

Does your lunch time affect weight loss?
Does your lunch time affect weight loss?
Image: Shutterstock
A new study from the International Journal of Obesity hassuggested that those who eat lunch earlier in the day may have better successwith weight loss than those who eat later. The study surveyed a total of 420 people in a weight loss program and found that those who regularly ate lunch before 3 p.m. lost about 25% more weight than those who ate later.

As someone who snacks about every three hours, with slightly larger snacks around breakfast and lunch, missing meals isn’t something I often do. My body is used to having small, constant amounts of food coming in to refuel it—so a late lunch is pretty miserable for me. But others don’t have the same routine as I do—my boss regularly waits until after three to eat and even then it’s just a bowl of ramen noodles (sodium and carbs). For those or you who find yourselves relating to her, I wanted to discuss the implications of eating late.

3 p.m. lunch may bee too long of a wait.
Image: Shutterstock

Numerous studies have been done over the years on the effect of meal times and sizes. Some suggest that the biggest meal should be breakfast, and meals should gradually decline in size, making dinner the smallest. Other studies say that eating every three hours is best for our bodies, as it keeps meals small and generally lighter than a heaping platter. But none of these studies have definitively nailed down the single best pattern. And that includes this one.

When reading into studies, make sure to keep in mind all the variable factors. One such factor to consider is how much time the participants were going between meals. This study doesn’t chart that, but it’s an important consideration to make. One thing we do know about meal times is that when we go too long in between meals, it can affect the metabolism, slowing it and hindering weight loss.

Try spacing your meals equally so your body doesn't go into "starvation" mode
A cute lunch box is essential in life!
Participants also likely had other different behaviors, including the comparison between calories consumed and burned. Not getting enough sleep has also been linked to higher rates of obesity and lower success in weight loss. The researchers themselves have recognized that these findings are preliminary and require further research to determine how much meal-timing influences weight loss.

Certainly, it’s not a bad idea to space your meals out equally and keep your body from going into “starvation” mode. But how much of an impact it actually has remains to be seen. Eating right and exercising regularly are still kings of the weight-loss world. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Spotlight: Melatonin, the “Dracula of Hormones”

Can melatonin help cure insomnia?
Can melatonin help cure insomnia?
Image: Shutterstock
About a year ago, a co-worker told me that when she had trouble sleeping, she just took a small dose of melatonin and that helped her sleep through the night and wake feeling well rested. I had been having trouble falling asleep at night, and I asked her to tell me more. She told me that melatonin was a natural hormone and was sold over the counter for a relatively inexpensive amount. It sparked my curiosity, but I was too overwhelmed with work at the time to research it further.

I have a good friend who suffers from insomnia. She sometimes goes days without getting more than a few hours of sleep—and not for lack of trying. She often “rests” on days like that, which means she often spends hours lying in bed, exhausted, trying to fall asleep. From time to time I have bouts of sleep trouble as well, tossing and turning for several hours before drifting off into an uncomfortable sleep, only to reawaken a few hours later. As I continued to hear stories from my friend about her inability to sleep, I kept asking myself about melatonin. Finally, I sat down to learn more. Here’s what I discovered:
Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland in our brains.
Image from
  • Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone produced by the pineal gland in our brains, which is a pea-shaped gland just above the center of our brains. It is produced to help control our sleep cycles, with larger quantities of it being produced starting around 9 PM and lasting until about 9 AM—our natural sleep hours.
  • Melatonin is found in some foods naturally, which is why it is the only hormone that the FDA allows to be sold as a dietary supplement.
  • Light directly affects how much melatonin our brains produce, which is part of what leads to symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
  • Melatonin is generally produced in higher amounts in children and adolescents, with that amount naturally dropping off as we age. Some older adults only make small amounts or none at all.
  • Not enough research has been done on melatonin, but scientists are looking into using it as a treatment for SAD, to help control sleep patterns, preventing/reducing sleeping problems after surgery, and reducing chronic clutter headaches.
  • It’s possible that melatonin may help slow or even stop the spread of cancer, slow aging, and strengthen the immune system.
  • Melatonin seems to help some people struggling with sleep problems, but during formal research it was shown to be ineffective as a sleeping pill. There is evidence, however, that it can help reset our internal clock—though whether it is more effective than light remains to be seen.
  • Some research suggests melatonin may help people fall asleep faster. It could also help those working night shifts adjust their schedules. It may also be an effective treatment for jet lag. For the treatment of insomnia, the study results have thus far been inconclusive.
Melatonin is sold as a dietary supplement over the counter (OTC).
Image from
In sum, melatonin may or may not be effective as a sleeping aid. The good news is that there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that use of it could be harmful, so it could be a good option to try if you’re wary of prescription sleeping pills (as I am). Dosage can vary from 0.2 mg to 20 mg, though, so if you’re considering giving it a go, you should discuss dosage with your doctor first.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Juicers: Fab or Fad?

Fresh juice? Yes, please!
Fresh juice? Yes, please!
Image: Shutterstock

I’ll admit it: I’ve eyed them at the store. The only thing that’s stopped me from purchasing one myself is the cost. Even so, every once in a while I consider how long it would take me to pay one off if I bought it on my credit card. But I’ve also stopped to think about their sudden burst into popularity. Are they just a fad? Or are they really as great as they seem? I’m talking about juicers, of course.

Juicers have a cult-like following.
Juicers have a cult-like following.
Image: Shutterstock
There’s no question about it—Americans generally don’t get as many daily servings of fruits and veggies as they ought to. Even those of us who try to always eat healthy, balanced meals might have a hard time fitting five servings of each in a day’s time. Whether it’s because we don’t like the taste or it’s just too much trouble to prepare, many of us are lacking sufficient servings, causing a full array of problems.

Juicers offer the simple option of throwing fruits and veggies in whole and spitting out the liquid and nutrients, leaving a dry pulp behind. People are swearing by the machines, attributing weight loss, healthier skin, and moreenergy to the extra vitamins and minerals they’re now consuming. But how true are these claims?

As it turns out, they’re pretty legitimate. Adding servings of juice to a regular diet can add lots of nutritional value, especially when people use dark green and deep orange vegetables in their juices. Kale and carrots may not be an enjoyable taste for everyone, but many are finding that they can easily palate them when they’re mixed up with a few sweeter fruits like pineapple or apple.

Unfortunately, the method is not perfect and some nutritionists have urged people not to get too carried away. “You’re getting a higher quota of some nutrients, but not necessarily all of them,” cautioned Jennifer Nelson of the Mayo Clinic. Some nutrients can be lost in the process of juicing, so the practice shouldn’t necessarily completely replace regular, whole, fruits and veggies in meals.

Juicers skyrocketed into popularity after the release of "Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead."
Image from
Juicers vary significantly in price, starting at about $50 for manual models that require chopping and produce very little juice and jumping to somewhere around $700 for more elaborate models. “Fast” Juicers produce juice in mere seconds, are generally loud, and get most moisture out of produce. “Slow” juicers take a few minutes to process but get more liquid out and don’t produce heat—which can deplete some nutritional value. “Whole food” juicers work much like a food processor or blender, grinding up the whole ingredient and leaving behind nothing.

Juicers jumped to popularity shortly after the release of “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead,” produced by Australian filmmaker Joe Cross, who went on a 60-day juice fast and lost over 80 pounds, sending his autoimmune disease into remission. After it was released on Netflix, sales skyrocketed. Last year, sales hit about $215 million, a 71% growth over the year before. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Spotlight: Energy Supplements & Vitamins

Stimulants are one way to get extra energy.
Stimulants are one way to get extra energy.
Image: 5 Hour Energy
Life moves quickly these days, and it always seems like there isn’t enough time in a day to get all the things done we needed or wanted to. We’re tired and run down sometimes, and going to the grocery store seems to scream a singular solution: energy bars, pills, drinks, and more. But do you really know what you need versus what you’re getting?

There are multiple types of energy supplements and vitamins available for purchase, and they accomplish different ends because they affect your body differently. And you might not even “need” one at all.

Stimulants basically rev up your metabolism. Stimulants include caffeine, guarana, yerba mate, kola nut, green tea, capsaicin (red pepper), Asian ginseng, and Bitter Orange (synephrine). These will help pick you up when you feel groggy or sluggish in the middle of your day. Caffeine is one of the most potent and effective stimulants. Many natural alternatives to caffeine still contain it or something similar to it; most have the same or similar effects as caffeine. They will give you a temporary boost in energy when you need it.

Green tea contains caffeine, which can give you a boost.
Green tea contains caffeine, which can give you a boost.
Image: Shutterstock
Substances that affect energy metabolism are a different kind of “energy” supplement. This category includes products like Coenzyme Q10, B vitamins, folic acid, thamine, niacin, Creatine, carnitine, and amino acids. Rather than temporarily boosting our metabolism, these products change the way our bodies process and convert nutrients to energy. Eating a healthy, balanced diet will generally get you the same effects as taking these supplements. Taking them on their own isn’t proven to increase energy except in those who are deficient in those substances. In those who are deficient, taking supplements could be of some benefit to your energy levels.
Calories are energy.
Calories are, simply put, energy.
Image: Shutterstock

Calories, much to the disbelief of many, are not the same thing as fat. Calories are, simply put, energy. Carbohydrates (including sugars) are easy for our bodies to break down and absorb as energy, and that’s generally what energy drinks, bars, and gels are full of. The problem is that with too much sugar, our bodies’ glucose levels get spiked and we experience an insulin surge—which can cause problems on its own. For athletes working their bodies hard, carbs can give them the boost they need to refuel or recover. But when you’re not exercising, that spike in glucose will likely quickly lead to a crash, which will make you feel sleepy. And those calories you don’t burn will get converted into fat.

Eating a healthy diet will help give you an energy boost.
Eating a healthy diet will help give you an energy boost.
Image: Shutterstock
When choosing whether or not to use a supplement, consider whether or not you have a medical condition that would affect you adversely. Some supplements could be dangerous for you. Remember that many of the “energy” supplements haven’t been scientifically studied—or they may just be straight sugar and carbs.

Consider whether or not you really need it before you try it, too. If you’re regularly going on just a few hours of sleep, constantly taking energy supplements could not only be less than optimally effective, it could be dangerous. As I’m sure you’ve heard before, the best way to boost energy is to get enough sleep and exercise and eat a healthy diet.