The Health Benefits of Vitamin D

The body produces vitamin D as a response to sun exposure. The best way to increase vitamin D levels in the body is by exposing bare skin to the sun for about 5-10 minutes 2-3 times a week. Living in the Northeast, it is unlikely that people are getting enough vitamin D and may need to consume fortified food or supplements.

Having enough vitamin D is essential for several reasons:

  • Support the health of the brain, immune system, and nervous system. Supplementing with vitamin D during the winter months may reduce the risk of influenza.
  • Maintain strong bones and teeth by regulating calcium and phosphorus levels in the blood.
  • Support lung function and cardiovascular health
  • Regulate insulin levels and manage diabetes. Insufficient levels of vitamin D in people with type 2 diabetes may negatively affect insulin secretion and glucose tolerance.
  • Pregnant women who are deficient in vitamin D may be at higher risk of developing preeclampsia and require a cesarean section.

Symptoms of vitamin D deficiency may include depression, fatigue, hair loss, muscle pain, and painful bones and back. The most accurate way to measure vitamin D levels is a blood test.

Although sunlight is the most efficient source of vitamin D, there are natural ways to increase vitamin D. Foods that provide vitamin D include:

  • Fatty fish, such as tuna, mackerel, and salmon
  • Foods fortified with vitamin D, include some dairy products, orange juice, soy milk, and cereals
  • Beef liver
  • Cheese
  • Egg yolks

Quote of the week:

“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” ~ Martin Luther King

Recipe of the Week: Smoked Salmon Appetizer

Ingredients:

  • 1 pre-baked pizza shell (I used Stonefire Artisan Thin Crust Pizza)
  • Herbed cheese or creme fresh
  • Capers
  • Fresh snipped dill
  • Smoked salmon.

Instructions:

Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees; place pizza shell on rack for 8-10 minutes. Remove shell to cutting board and smear cheese all over crust in a thin layer. Sprinkle generously with capers. Arrange salmon on top, snip dill over entire top. Cut into 16 sections and serve at room temperature. You can also cut into little squares

Smoked Salmon Appetizer

The Quickest and Easiest Way To Meal Prep

Preparing and eating meals at home or taking on the go does not have to equate to hours in the kitchen. With a little prep work on the weekend, you can have a week’s worth of healthy meals to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Below are a few simple steps to ensure a week of healthy eating.

Write it down! Spending time to make a shopping list and create menu ideas for the week ahead is optimal for saving time and money. A list will make weekly shopping more manageable and also provide a solid plan for meals, especially dinner. And if you don’t want to do all your shopping at once, you can refer back to the list for ideas.

Plan ahead! Take a quick inventory of your fridge and pantry so you can navigate the grocery store and only purchase what you need for the week. Shop the perimeter of the store first, as that is where you will find the healthiest foods (fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, and dairy). You can also stock up on staples like whole grains, dried herbs and spices, canned broth, beans, and eggs.

Time to cook! It may be easier to prepare meals for the week on the same day you shop. Begin with foods that require longer cook times, such as brown rice or soups. Let hot foods cool to room temperature before you store or freeze. Cook chicken breasts ahead to use on salads or in stir-fry dishes. Wash and dry lettuce so it’s ready to use for salads. You can also slice or chop veggies that you will use throughout the week in salads, stir-fry dishes, snacks, or roasting (peppers, carrots, celery, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, winter squash, zucchini, summer squash). If you are pressed for time, you can purchase chopped vegetables or cut fruit. In addition, buying a whole rotisserie chicken is a huge time-saver for a quick dinner.

Time to Eat! Below are a few suggestions for weekly meals:

Breakfast ideas:

Smoothies – prepare fresh fruit such as bananas, strawberries, and pineapple and freeze in individual bags. Or you can buy frozen fruit and add a fresh banana. Using fresh-squeezed orange juice or almond milk is an easy way to add flavor or creaminess without added calories/sugar.

Vegetable Quiche Cups: Combine egg whites, cheese, spinach, green or red pepper, onion and a dash of hot pepper and bake in muffin tins for a high-protein breakfast on the go. FULL RECIPE HERE.

Lunch ideas:

Greek Salad – Using the washed lettuce you prepared early in the week, toss together a with tomatoes, cucumbers, feta, olives, and avocado. Add chicken breast for added protein if you’re extra hungry!

Chicken Caesar Salad – Combine the washed Romaine lettuce with cooked chicken, Parmesan cheese, and a simple dressing. Be sure to measure out the serving size of the dressing so extra calories and fat don’t sneak their way into your salad.

Minestrone Soup: Prepared ahead of time, this is a hearty meal to eat at home or pack to go. (RECIPE HERE)

Snack ideas:
Cut veggies with hummus or ranch dressing; homemade trail mix (RECIPE HERE), or fruit salad.

Dinner ideas:

Zucchini Noodles and Marinara Sauce – You can spiral the zucchini ahead of time and combine with jarred sauce or homemade marinara and top with Parmesan cheese.

Roasted Veggies and chicken sausage – Since the sausage is fully-cooked, you can slice and pan-fry with prepared roasted vegetables.

Stir-fry vegetables with brown rice – Using the rice you cooked earlier in the week, stir-fry in sesame oil and/or olive oil with chopped vegetables (broccoli, carrots, onion, cauliflower, and red peppers) and serve over rice.

Quote of the week:

If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way. If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.  ~ Jim Rohn

Recipe of the Week: Easy Greek Salad with Avocado

Ingredients:

Field Greens or Romaine Lettuce (washed and chopped)

1 large tomato chopped

1 medium cucumber chopped

¼ cup Kalamata olives

¼ Feta cheese

1/3 avocado

Fresh ground pepper

Red onion (optional)

For dressing: Wisk juice of one lemon with one tablespoon of olive oil and one tablespoon of Dijon mustard.

Instructions:

Combine all the ingredients for the salad in a large bowl and toss well with dressing. Enjoy!

Let’s Get Physical! The Benefits of Regular Exercise to Improve Your Health

It’s no secret that regular exercise is good for your mind and body. The simple message offered in the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (2nd edition) says to “move more and sit less throughout the day” and suggests 30 minutes of physical activity a day for adults and 60 minutes for children, at least five days a week.

Physical activity for all ages, genders, and body types can make you feel, function, and sleep better. In addition, the long-term health benefits of physical activity are proven to reduce the risk of several chronic diseases. Whatever your current level of fitness, there are so many ways to incorporate more physical activity into your week. When I was a young mother, I needed a quick, concentrated workout to fit into my busy schedule. I headed to a nearby track and began by walking one lap, running one lap until I could run a mile. One mile led to three miles, which led to my first 5-mile race.

Physical activity is an individual choice and does not need to involve a trip to the gym. Some days, my “workout” may include a walk with a friend, cleaning my house, walking my dog, doing some yard work, and walking the golf course (in my attempt to be a golfer!). Ideally, combining moderate aerobic activity (endurance or cardio), strength exercises, and stretching into every week is optimal for overall health. Below are a few tips to succeed in regular physical activity at any level:

  • If you are sedentary, begin with light-intensity activities like a leisurely walk (2 mph) or light household chores.
  • If you are currently active, but not regularly exercising, try moderate-intensity activities such as brisk walking, doubles tennis, golf, biking, yard work, or recreational swimming.
  • If you already engage in regular physical activity, you will benefit from vigorous-intensity activities on most days of the week. These include jogging, hiking, running, swimming laps, jumping rope, strenuous group fitness classes, and strength training.

For significant health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes to 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise (or a combination of both moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity). Incorporating a variety of activities during the week will prevent boredom and fitness plateaus. The bottom line is: get moving and keep moving! No one ever said, “I wish I didn’t do that workout!”

Quote of the week:

“Nothing is impossible. The word itself says I’m possible.”

~ Audrey Hepburn

Recipe of the Week

Oven-roasted sausage with vegetables*

Ingredients

6 sweet Italian pork sausage (you can also use cooked chicken sausage)

1 large green pepper

1 large onion

1 medium head cauliflower washed, trimmed, and florets separated

Olive oil for pan

Instructions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake the sausage links for about 15 minutes and remove from oven and cut into 1-inch pieces. Slice the pepper into 1-inch pieces and place in large bowl. Slice the onion and add to bowl. Add the cauliflower pieces and cut sausage to bowl and toss well. Brush a baking sheet with olive oil and spread the sausage/vegetable mixture evenly on pan. Bake for 15 minutes or until the sausage begins to brown. Serve with brown rice or whole-wheat penne pasta.

*For a vegetarian/vegan version of this dish, eliminate sausage and super-size the veggies (I swap the pepper for Brussels sprouts).

The Power of Food to Defend Heart Disease

February is American Heart Health Month and a time of year to raise awareness about heart disease and prevention. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, yet highly preventable. The ideal diet for heart health is one that is low in animal products, low in sugar and processed foods, and high in vegetables and other whole plant foods. In addition to regular exercise, making heart-healthy nutritional choices will help you live a long and healthy life. Below are eight heart-healthy foods to include in your diet.

Berries: Eating a variety of berries may prevent cardiovascular disease as this colorful fruit is high in antioxidants and polyphenols. Rich in vitamin C and fiber, berries such as strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries contain compounds that help lower blood pressure and LDL (the bad cholesterol!).

Avocado: This fruit has more potassium than a banana, which helps to lower blood pressure. Studies have shown that eating avocado can improve heart disease risk factors like cholesterol levels as well as blood triglycerides (a type of fat found in the blood). Although a healthy fat, keep in mind that the serving size of an avocado is one-third, which is 123 calories.

Green Leafy Vegetables: Another reason to love spinach! Leafy vegetables such as cabbage, kale, romaine, and spinach contain vitamin K which helps with the synthesis of blood clotting and also slows calcium deposits in artery walls leading to a healthier heart.

Nuts and Seeds: Eating nuts, nut butter (peanut, almond), and seeds (think pumpkin, sesame, flax, and chia) have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of inflammation, and decrease insulin resistance. A little goes a long way as this heart-healthy food is rich in (good) fat, fiber, and protein, but high in calories.

Beans: Not only do beans have an array of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, but beans also contain phytochemicals that reduce inflammation and oxidative damage within the arterial walls (oxidative stress is caused by an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in your body).

Apples: Eating an apple a day is a natural way to prevent heart disease, as benefits include lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Apples contain pectin, a soluble fiber that prevents cholesterol absorption in your gut.

Tomatoes: As a source of the antioxidant lycopene, tomatoes can lower inflammation in your body and prevent oxidative stress that contributes to heart disease. The nutritional value of a tomatoe is improved when cooked as it releases more lycopene, which has shown to improve heart health and blood pressure.

Dark Chocolate: Yes! Dark Chocolate is an antioxidant-rich food that helps reduce cardiovascular disease. The darker, the better, so look for varieties that contain at least 72% cocoa.

Quote of the week:

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

~ Benjamin Franklin

Recipe of the Week: Cauliflower “Fried Rice”

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • 5 scallions, chopped, whites and greens separated
  • 1/2 cup shredded or diced carrots
  • ½ cup frozen peas
  • 1 large Egg
  • 2 egg whites
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes or black pepper
  • 1 medium head cauliflower trimmed, and florets separated
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce or Tamari

Instructions:

Coarsely chop the cauliflower into florets, then place half of the cauliflower in a food processor and pulse until the consistency of rice. Set aside and repeat with the remaining cauliflower. Shred one carrot in the food processor or dice (I used shredded carrot). Combine egg and egg whites in a small bowl and beat with a fork. Season with salt. Heat a large non-stick pan or wok over medium heat, then add olive oil. Add the eggs and cook, turning a few times until set; set aside. Add the sesame oil and sauté scallion whites, peas and carrots and garlic about 3 to 4 minutes, or until soft. Add red pepper flakes and garlic and sauté one additional minute. Raise the heat to medium-high. Add the cauliflower “rice” and soy sauce to the pan. Mix, cover and cook approximately 5 to 6 minutes, stirring frequently, until the cauliflower is slightly crispy on the outside but tender on the inside. Add the egg then remove from heat and mix in scallion greens. Serve immediately.

Cauliflower “Fried Rice”

Do you Know Your Food Footprint?

Your “food footprint” is part of your ecological footprint and sustainable food strategies have social, economic, and environmental impacts. Food’s carbon footprint is the greenhouse gas emissions produced by growing, farming, processing, transporting, storing, cooking, and disposing of the food you eat. There are many environmentally friendly food choices that can improve your own food footprint.

Some foods demand more water, fertilizer, pesticides, and energy for their production than others. Meat, eggs, and cheese have the highest carbon footprint while fruit, vegetables, beans, and nuts have a lower carbon footprint. Below are a few tips to reduce your carbon footprint to help preserve the environment.

Eat vegetarian: The carbon footprint of a vegetarian diet is about half that of a meat-eater.

Studies have shown that vegetarians have about half the “foodprint” of meat eaters. If you don’t want entirely to give up meat, just cutting back can shrink the footprint of your diet by one-third. LEARN MORE!

Cook at home: Preparing meals at home is a great way to improve the health of you and your family because you can control the amount you make and eat and halve  your carbon footprint. Meal planning also reduces food waste and you can be creative with leftovers (recipes to follow!).

Eat organic: Organic farming methods (for both crops and animals) have a lower impact on the environment than conventional processes. If you can’t always buy organic, The Environmental Working Group offers a “Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce” that may help you navigate the food aisle.

Shop local and wisely: Where you shop may impact your food’s carbon footprint. A weekly trip to the supermarket is a habit of many, but shopping in bulk a few times a month for non-perishable items and using a local market for fresh foods can help reduce your carbon footprint.

Food is important to our ecological footprint and changing the foods you eat can have a big impact on the environment. By choosing food that has less packaging, has not traveled a long distance and has been produced in a sustainable way, you can help reduce your carbon footprint.

Quote of the week:

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed. – Gandhi

Recipe of the Week

Whole-wheat Pasta Primavera with Fresh Mozzarella

This recipe is so easy to make, and you can use any fresh vegetables on hand (even leftovers!).

½ pound whole wheat penne pasta

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil

1 Tablespoon fresh minced garlic

½ small red onion, sliced

1 large zucchini, quartered lengthwise then sliced into ¼-inch thick slices

1 large fresh tomato, diced

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning (or no-salt organic seasoning)

Fresh ground pepper and sea salt to taste

Fresh Mozzarella or grated parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil (1 Tbsp salt for 2 quarts of water). While the water is heating, prepare the vegetables. Cook the vegetables while the pasta is cooking so they are done about the same time.

Once the water is boiling, add the pasta to the water and follow directions on package. Cook uncovered at a vigorous boil. Drain, but reserve ½ cup of the pasta water.

Heat 2 Tbsp of the olive oil in a large skillet on medium high heat. Add the onions and garlic. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the onions begin to soften.

Add zucchini and cook for another 3 to 4 minutes on medium high to high heat, until almost cooked through. Add the cooked pasta, fresh tomato, pepper, and salt, and toss until coated with vegetables. Add some of the pasta water if desired and toss again. Top with fresh mozzarella or grated parmesan cheese.

Whole-wheat Pasta Primavera with Fresh Mozzarella

Decoding “Functional Foods” for Optimal Health

What are functional foods? The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics defines functional foods as “whole foods along with fortified, enriched, or enhanced foods that have a potentially beneficial effect on health when consumed as part of a varied diet on regular basis at effective levels based on significant standards of evidence.”

If you are still confused about functional foods, it basically means foods that provide health benefits beyond basic nutrition. For instance, eating foods that contain phytochemicals like vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, and other plant sources has been linked to reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, osteoporosis and coronary heart disease.

But consumers should be aware that many processed foods become functional foods when they are fortified with nutrients or enhanced with phytochemicals or herbs. For example, calcium-fortified orange juice or cereals enriched with vitamins and minerals. Even eggs and milk are now being fortified with Omega-3 fatty acids for heart health, but you can naturally obtain this unsaturated fat in your diet by eating cold water fish like salmon, swordfish, or tuna. Regular intake of functional foods in its purest, natural form promotes optimal health by helping to reduce the risk of disease.

Below are a few examples of food sources and possible health effects:

  • Vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and kale (to name a few) may trigger production of enzymes that block DNA damage from carcinogens.
  • Hot peppers regulate blood clotting and possibly reduce the risk of fatal clots in heart and artery disease.
  • Whole-grain wheat and rye may reduce the risks of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
  • Red wine, peanuts, grapes, and raspberries act as an antioxidant and may prevent cancer growth as well as inflammation.
  • Intensely pigmented fruits and vegetables (apricots, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, grapefruit, tomatoes, spinach, sweet potatoes, red pepper, and watermelon) act as antioxidants, possibly reducing risks of cancer and other diseases.

The ideal way to incorporate functional foods in your diet is to routinely choose whole, unprocessed foods and fruits and vegetables in an array of colors.  So, an apple a day keeps the doctor away and may protect against heart disease!

Quote of the week:

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.  ~Hippocrates

Recipe of the Week:

Baked Salmon
Salmon is a great source of protein and rich in Omega-3 fatty acid. It is also linked to improved cardiovascular health and helps fight joint inflammation. This oven-baked salmon recipe can be ready to eat in 20 minutes!

Ingredients:
8 oz salmon fillet
Coarse salt or salt-free seasoning
Freshly ground black pepper
Lemon wedge

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Place salmon skin-side down on baking sheet. Season the salmon with salt and pepper (I used an organic salt-free seasoning). Bake until cooked through, about 12-15 minutes. Squeeze with lemon before serving. Serves 2.

Baked Salmon

Planning a Healthy Diet is as easy as ABC (and NMV)

The word “diet” is often associated with counting calories or short-term weight loss strategies. By definition, the term simply means one’s daily consumption of food. Following a wholesome eating pattern across one’s lifetime will help achieve and maintain a healthy body weight and reduce the risk of chronic disease. A healthy diet incorporates six diet-planning principles that can be remembered through the acronym ABCNMV.

Adequacy: This means providing all the essential nutrients, fiber, and calories in amounts sufficient to maintain good health. For example, a person loses iron each day through normal metabolism, so it is important to replenish this essential nutrient to prevent iron-deficiency which may cause fatigue and headaches. To prevent these symptoms, a person could include iron-rich foods in their daily intake like green leafy vegetables, eggs, and legumes. One way to do this is to start the day with a spinach omelet, incorporate a side-salad to one or more meals, or add lentils or beans to a soup (using my recipe in my last post!).

Balance: Balance in the diet helps to ensure adequacy. This means providing foods in proportion to one another and in proportion to your individual needs. Dietary balance involves six classes of essential nutrients: water, carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals. The balancing act involves incorporating a daily intake of these nutrients for optimal health. One of my go-to dinners that incorporates all the essential nutrients includes baked salmon (protein, fat, vitamins), brown rice (carbohydrates, minerals), and steamed broccoli (vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates).

Calorie Control: The management of calories consumed from foods should balance with the number of calories being used by the body to support a person’s metabolism and physical activity level. The key is forming good nutritional habits and careful meal planning combined with daily exercise.

Nutrient Density: The more nutrients and fewer calories in food contributes to higher nutrient density. Fruits and vegetables are examples of nutrient dense foods or choosing whole wheat bread versus a bagel. If you are trying to incorporate more calcium in your diet,  choose fat-free milk versus whole milk for a nutrient dense option.

Moderation: “Everything in moderation” is phrase often used when talking about calorie control or basic diet principles. Moderation contributes to adequacy, balance, and calorie control by providing enough, but not too much, of one particular nutrient. I call it the 80/20 rule for a balanced lifestyle. 80% of my time is meal-planning, cooking at home with quality ingredients, and trying to eat less at every meal. The other 20% is the daily chocolate and wine consumption (in moderation!) or a weekend splurge of dinner out.

Variety: Food diversity improves nutrient adequacy. Eating a wide selection of foods within the major food groups ensures that you receive different amounts of nutrients from different types of foods. Eating wholesome meals does not have to be monotonous. Variety is the spice of life!

Quote of the week:

Sometimes you need to change the PLAN, not the GOAL.  ~ Mel Robbins

Recipe of the Week
With Super Bowl Sunday this week, healthy snacks are essential! I am providing a twist on a traditional hummus by using white beans instead of chickpeas.

White Bean Hummus
1 can cannellini beans (15 oz), drained and rinsed
2 heaping tablespoons tahini
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1-2 lemons
1 clove garlic minced or 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
a few twists of Himalayan salt grinder (or sea salt)
1-2 tablespoons of water as needed to thin
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Place ingredients in food processor, except water, and blend until desired consistency.

Taste for flavor and add additional ingredients to your liking. I usually add more salt and lemon juice. Add 1 tablespoon of water at a time to thin. I like a thinner hummus so may add more than 2 tablespoons of water. Enjoy with raw veggies or whole grain crackers or use as a sandwich spread. Makes about 1 ½ cups.

White Bean Hummus