Strong Not Skinny – the Power of Protein by Dr. Sarah Schenker

Egg salad

It is widely accepted that carrying excess weight is damaging to health and most of us are aware of the increased risk of conditions such as diabetes and heart disease if we are severely overweight. However, not many of us realise that a ‘lose weight at all costs’ approach can be equally damaging to health, particularly to our long-term health. People who want to lose weight often just focus on a number on a scale. Then they feel they have been successful if they can get close to that target without knowing that there is a right way and a most definite wrong way to lose weight and the wrong way may actually cause more harm than good.

If you have been unhappy with your body shape for a while, maybe since having kids and are determined to do something about it, it is worth noting that you are unlikely to get back the body you had in your teens or twenties. There are significant changes that occur to our metabolism, hormones and body composition as we age and these need to be considered before embarking on a weight loss plan. Another important consideration is knowing when to stop – once you start to lose weight it can often spur you on to go further, but excessive weight loss can build up health problems further down the line. With this in mind, a good mantra is to think ‘strong not skinny’.

Focusing on a target weight can leave you with skinny arms and legs and a spare tyre of stubborn fat around your middle. Not only is this unlikely to be the look you were hoping for, but also abdominal fat is associated with a greater risk of metabolic disease and high blood pressure. The loss of muscle mass from arms and legs can lead to frailty in old age with an increased risk of falls.

As we age, there is a natural loss of muscle mass. This can be exacerbated by a poor diet leading to the condition sarcopenia, and once muscle is lost, it is notoriously difficult to build up again. To begin with you may not notice effects of sarcopenia, but eventually, it could impair your gait, balance and overall ability to perform daily tasks.

All this points to the importance of maintaining muscle mass while losing weight and championing strength over a desired dress size. Muscle mass is preserved through the right type of resistance exercise and consuming adequate protein.

Protein needs

Daily protein requirements are lower than most people would expect. It is generally recommended that a person consumes around 0.7g of protein per kilogram of body weight, meaning if you weight 70kg (11stone) you would need 49g of protein per day. This is the equivalent of 2 eggs and a small 4oz steak.

As with most body tissues, muscles are dynamic and are constantly being broken down and rebuilt. To gain muscle, your body must synthesize more muscle protein than it breaks down. In other words, there needs to be a net positive protein balance in your body. Recently, it is now thought that in order to maintain and/or increase muscle mass an intake of 1.2g per kilogram body weight is required. This would mean that the same 70kg person needs 84g of protein per day.

Protein distribution

A key aspect of achieving a positive protein balance is how protein is consumed throughout the day. Typical diets tend to have an uneven distribution of protein, with breakfast and lunch tending to be carb heavy – think a bowl of porridge to start the day and a sandwich or sub at lunch, then a large amount of protein at dinner in the form of mince, chicken or fish. Research has shown that a more even distribution of protein throughout the day has a better effect on building and maintaining muscle mass. Consuming around 20-25g of protein at each meal and snack is considered the optimal amount to maximise synthesis and minimise breakdown resulting in a net positive balance.

This could translate to a couple of eggs for breakfast, tuna salad for lunch and a chicken breast for dinner with a few handfuls of almonds and some Greek yogurt as snacks.

Protein quality

Animal sources of protein (meat, fish, eggs and dairy products) are considered to be high quality as they provide all the essential amino acids in good amounts. These are the amino acids that the body cannot make and so they are necessary in the diet. Plant based sources of protein tend to lack one or more of these amino acids, however, soya, nuts and legumes make suitable alternatives. If you are following a plant-based diet, try to include and combine as many sources of protein as you can to optimise your intake of amino acids.

Three amino acids, known as BCAA (branched chain amino acids) are particularly effective in stimulating muscle growth and repair. Research shows they can aid recovery after exercise, stimulate protein synthesis and build muscle. The richest food sources are meat, poultry and fish, and they can be found in collagen and whey protein supplements.

Protein to aid weight loss

Protein is one of your strongest allies when it comes to losing weight. Evidence suggests that eating protein can increase the number of calories you burn by boosting your metabolic rate and reducing your appetite. Research has shown that a higher protein diet is able to help prevent weight gain. In one study, a modest increase in protein from 15% to 18% of calories reduced the amount of fat people regained after weight loss by 50%.

See my Midlife recipes for some ideas to boost your protein intake.

Image © [timolina] /Adobe Stock

Eat to Beat Stress by Dr. Sarah Schenker

Green vegetables

 

roHectic lifestyles and busy workloads can push the body’s response to stress via the adrenal glands. Add to this a reliance on sugar and caffeine, combined with lack of sleep it’s only a matter of time before the body crashes. To support these overworked glands we can enrich our diet with the nutrients that they use to function: the B vitamins, vitamin C and magnesium. These nutrients can become depleted by both stress and alcohol, so the harder we work and/or party, the greater the demand!

Approximately 80% of the vitamin C used in our body is in the functioning of our adrenal glands, and as our body can’t store vitamin C, we need to be constantly topping up our levels. We can boost the vitamin C in our diet by eating plenty of

  • green leafy vegetables like broccoli and spinach
  • peppers
  • kiwis
  • cauliflower
  • citrus fruits
  • berries

As well as providing support for our adrenals, the B vitamins are vital for energy production, keeping the brain sharp, and helping our livers to detoxify substances like alcohol and painkillers. Good sources of B vitamins include

  • wholegrains
  • eggs
  • pulses
  • nuts and seeds

Chronic stress depletes the body of magnesium, and the lower we are in magnesium, the more reactive we become to stress – it’s a viscous cycle! In addition to this, magnesium has an important role to play in hormone balance, and some research suggests that low levels can worsen PMS-related bloating, headaches and sugar cravings. Boost your intake with

  • green leafy vegetables
  • nuts, especially cashews, almonds and macadamia
  • seeds, especially sunflower, chia and sesame

Nutrition surveys conducted over the last decade years have consistently shown that the average intakes of selenium are much lower than the recommended daily amount. Selenium is an important mineral for the proper functioning of the brain. Low intakes lead to low levels of selenium in the body which negatively affects mood and contributes to depression and mental health problems. Research has shown that when selenium levels are restored symptoms of depression are minimized and mood is improved. Brazil nuts are the richest source along with

  • meat
  • fish
  • wholegrains
  • dairy products.

Poor intakes of certain nutrients may also contribute to weight gain. The stress hormone cortisol can also contribute to a “spare tyre” of fat accumulating around the middle, increasing risk of chronic disorders such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Omega 3 fatty acids play a crucial role in boosting the metabolism and helping the body to burn fat. These can be found in

  • oily fish (sardines, mackerel, salmon)
  • walnuts
  • chia seeds
  • flaxseeds

Ensuring a good night’s sleep is also essential for appetite control and weight management, and this can be aided by getting a good intake of the “calming” minerals calcium and magnesium. There is a big difference between getting by on a diet that provides calories and one that nourishes. A nourishing diet not only provides energy through proteins, fats and carbohydrates but also all the essential nutrients the body need to stay healthy and work properly.

Eat Yourself Happy by Dr. Sarah Schenker

Female happy eating healthy food

In these strange new times, it is no surprise that many of us will be experiencing feelings of gloom, mood swings and frustration. Psychologists say it’s normal to feel more tired during lockdown, even though you’re doing less and daily tiredness can lead to a downward spiral of chronic fatigue and lack of motivation. It’s certainly tempting to invest in a large tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and crawl back under your duvet.

But it’s worth remembering that what you eat actually plays a vital role in how you feel, so while chocolate ice cream might lift your mood, it is most likely to be only be temporary, followed by a big guilt trip. There’s no quick-fix for the ‘lockdown blues’, but a healthy diet and daily exercise can help to lift a low mood and boost wellbeing.

Consider ways of incorporating the following foods and nutrients into your diet to balance your mood and increase vitality:

Low GI foods

Fluctuations in blood sugar levels are associated with changes in mood and energy and are affected by what we eat. After eating sugary foods or refined carbs, blood sugar levels can rise rapidly which may cause feelings of stress and anxiety, only to crash soon after, which can then leave you feeling lethargic and in a low mood. Choose foods that have a low GI, which means the food contains a type of carbohydrate that releases it’s energy slowly, keeping blood sugar levels steady and maintaining a more balanced, calm mood. Good choices include wholegrain rice, oats, peanuts, apples and berries.

High fibre foods

High fibre foods also help to maintain stable blood sugar levels, which can help to control appetite and reduce cravings for sugary and fatty snacks between meals. Feeling more in control of your appetite can reduce stress levels and help you make healthier choices at meal times. Try wholegrains such as quiona, new potatoes, kidney beans and green leafy veg.

Good sources of protein

Protein provides tryptophan, which is an amino acid that is needed to make several important hormones including the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin plays a role in fighting anxiety, promoting good moods and producing the sleep hormone melatonin. Tryptophan also helps the body to produce important B-vitamin niacin needed for good mental health and prevent depression. Foods high in tryptophan include turkey and pumpkin seeds.

Healthy fats

Omega-3 fatty acids are vital for good mental health, brain function, energy production, oxygen transfer and immunity. Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines, contain the 2 long chain omega 3 fats known as EPA and DHA, which can help to reduce inflammation, high levels of which may be linked to depression, while walnuts provide an essential form of omega fat that can be converted into EPA and DHA. While we usually think of saturated fat as unhealthy, some types of saturates (known as medium chain TGs) have health benefits. These type of saturates are found in coconut oil and can support the thyroid gland and the nervous system, both of which are important for maintaining energy levels and a positive mood.

Vitamins

Energy, appetite, mood, weight and body temperature are all governed by hormones produced by the thyroid gland. Thyroid hormones affect metabolism, and an imbalance can produce a wide variety of symptoms, including low mood and fatigue. Vitamins needed for the healthy production of thyroid hormones include including vitamins A (found in carrots, butternut squash and mangoes) , C (citrus fruit, watercress, peppers and berries) and E (avocados and broccoli). Another important vitamin is B6 which is needed for the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin which aids good sleep patterns and improves mood. Add sunflower seeds, pinto beans and tuna to your shopping list.

Plant substances

Many foods contain plant substances; while not essential for health, they nonetheless have great benefits to mental health. Chickpeas contain substances known as phytoestrogens, which can help to balance hormones such as testosterone (found in both men and women). When the level of this hormone rises, mood can be affected and increase feelings of stress and anxiety. The phytoestrogens help to stimulate the production of another hormones called sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), which binds testosterone and prevents excess levels circulating in the blood. Ginger contains a potent antioxidant, gingerol, which helps neutralize the harmful chemicals our bodies produce when we experience stress. Ginger can help calm feelings of anxiety and settle a nervous stomach. Beetroots contain a nutrient known as betaine, which can improve the production of the natural mood enhancing serotonin, while chilli peppers contain an active component called capsaicin. Capsaicin is what makes chili pepper so hot and causes the brain to secret endorphins which causes a temporary lift in mood.

Water

As part of its body functions, water contributes to the maintenance of normal brain functions including perceiving, thinking, remembering, as well as feeling emotions and exerting control over our environment. Scientific studies have investigated the effects of dehydration and have found that even at a low level (not enough to feel thirsty) it can impact negatively on mood. Above 2 percent body dehydration, it was found that mood and feelings become altered, including fatigue and perceived exertion, tension, confusion, anger and emotional state. Optimise your hydration by drinking around 2 litres of water throughout the day in small regular amounts.

5 top tips to boost mood and wellbeing

  1. Don’t ‘treat yourself’ with food. Try to ‘treat’ yourself in other ways –enjoy a hot soak in the bath, pamper yourself or enjoy some quiet time with a good book.
  2. Get plenty of natural light. Although we are in lockdown, we are allowed to exercise, so whether it’s a walk, run or cycle, go outside and stay safe.
  3. Include slow-releasing energy foods. Resist the temptation to make frequent visits to your fridge while you’re at home.  Try to include low GI foods in your diet everyday such as beans, pulses, dried fruits and nuts.
  4. Stick to regular mealtimes. Include plenty of high fibre, high protein foods at each meal to help you feel fuller for longer and avoid boredom eating between meals.
  5. Snack on foods such as pumpkin seeds, to give your body the building blocks to make feel-good mood booster serotonin which will help you keep your cool at this stressful time.

Boost Your Immunity by Dr. Sarah Schenker

Citrus fruits

A strong, well-functioning immune system is one of the key aspects of good health, fighting off disease and infections and allowing you to recover more quickly if you do become ill. There is no specific food or nutrient that has been clinically proven to “boost” the immune system all on its own, in fact a healthy immune system relies on a variety of foods that provide a natural abundance of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (compounds found in plants that have disease-fighting properties); nutrients such as vitamins C, A, D and E, omega fats and minerals zinc, selenium, iron, copper work together to keep your immune functions running smoothly. And it’s not all about food, regular exercise and good sleep habits can improve immune function. Studies show that even something as simple as a daily 30-minute walk, can have a beneficial effect.

The best nutritional strategy for keeping your immune system strong, is to keep your body well-nourished though a diet that provides all the nutrients it needs in adequate amounts. Below we look at a few of the key nutrients to include.

Vitamin C

Your body needs vitamin C for the production of collagen needed to build and maintain healthy skin, this is your body’s first line of defence in preventing disease and infection. Vitamin C is also essential for producing white blood cells and antibodies that fight off infections. On top of that it acts as a powerful antioxidant that helps protect cells from free-radical damage caused by exposure to environmental toxins.

While vitamin C has long had a reputation for helping prevent the common cold and many people gulp it down when they feel cold symptoms coming on, clinical studies have shown that these megadoses don’t actually prevent colds. On the other hand, there is some evidence to show that it does help to slightly reduce the duration of a cold, as well as the symptoms.

Rather than relying on supplements, the best way to get enough vitamin C is is to include rich food sources in your diet every day. One large orange or glass of orange juice will meet your daily needs. Plus you’ll benefit from other immune-protective compounds found in these foods.

Other good sources of vitamin C include grapefruit, honeydew and cantaloupe melon, kiwi, mangoes, papayas, raspberries, starfruit, strawberries and tangerines, each of which provide at least 25 to 30 percent of recommended amounts of vitamin C for a day. Vegetables, such as broccoli, spinach, watercress and peppers, are also great sources. Aim for at least five portions of fruits and vegetables a day, including at one or two that are rich in vitamin C.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is important for innate immunity, this is the way the body prevents the entry and spread of pathogens. Vitamin D stimulates the production of powerful substances in our white blood cells and in the cells that line the respiratory tract and so protect the lungs from infection. Our main source of vitamin D is through exposure to sunlight during the summer months, but stores can run low over the winter. This means we are more reliant of food sources of which there are relatively few. Foods naturally high in vitamin D include oily fish, red meat, liver and eggs.

Beta carotene (vitamin A)

Beta carotene is an orange-yellow pigment found in many fruits and vegetables, that are orange, red or yellow in colour, in particular carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, papaya, peaches and mango . Your body converts beta carotene as it’s needed into active vitamin A, a nutrient important for overall good health and optimal immune function. Like vitamin C, beta carotene is also a powerful antioxidant that helps protect cells from the damage of free radicals.

Beta carotene belongs to a large family of compounds called carotenoids that have numerous health and immune benefits. Lutein is found in egg yolks, corn and leafy vegetables, and lycopene in red fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and watermelon. Research shows that carotenoids work together in promoting health and preventing infection.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is especially important for good immune function. Avocados, wheat germ oil, sunflower seeds, almonds and hazelnuts are all excellent sources of vitamin E.

Your body needs an adequate amount of healthy fats to help you absorb vitamin E (and other fat-soluble vitamins) and to maintain good overall health and a healthy immune system. Include foods rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils like fatty fish, olives, nuts and seeds.

Selenium

Selenium is essential for a strong immune response and to fight infection. The best food sources of selenium are Brazil nuts, a small handful of 7-8 nuts will meet your daily requirement. Other good sources include seafood: tuna, red snapper, lobster and shrimp, as well as chicken, whole grains, brown rice, eggs, cottage cheese and sunflower seeds.

Zinc

Zinc is needed to produce and activate some types of white blood cells that help fight infections. Zinc has also been shown to lower the severity and incidence of the common cold. Zinc-rich foods include oysters, crab, beef, dark-meat turkey and beans.

Omega 3 fats

Omega-3 fats have been shown to be beneficial to the immune system and are found in oily fish (salmon, mackerel and sardine), walnuts and flaxseeds.

Why You Should Eat Seasonal Local Produce by Dr. Sarah Schenker

bowl of strawberries

As we enter the last month of spring and approach the summer, we will notice a real change in what fruit and veg are available in the shops and supermarkets. The end of spring and beginning of summer is when most of UK fruit and veg come into season, from asparagus and new potatoes to berries and peaches. But for many of us, being able to eat what we want when we want has become so much part of our lives that it’s hard to imagine a time when you couldn’t buy raspberries in January or parsnips in July.

As the supermarkets offer an ever-widening variety of imported food, the link between what we eat and when it grows locally has almost disappeared and the concept of seasonal eating has been lost. However, what we gain in choice and convenience we lose in many other ways. Imported fruit and veg often cost more, are not environmentally friendly and may lack flavour.

The reasons for buying seasonal local produce go beyond the issues of economic and environmental. Local produce can be nutritionally superior to that from other countries, with higher levels of certain vitamins and minerals and provide health benefits such as improved immunity and disease prevention.

By the time fruits and vegetables reach your kitchen several factors determine their nutritional quality: the specific variety chosen, the growing methods used, ripeness when harvested, post-harvest handling, storage, extent and type of processing, and distance transported. The vitamin and mineral content of fruits and vegetables depends on decisions and practices all along the food system – from seed to table – and provide the justification for eating locally.

Vitamins degrade over time and with storage, so the fresher your produce, the better. Additionally, if produce needs a longer shelf-life to last lengthy transit times, they will be loaded with preservatives.

It is generally accepted that fruit and veg in season tastes better as it has ripened naturally and fully, which in turn makes it more appealing to eat. Seasonal produce also contains nutrients that suit the body’s needs for that time of year, such as summer fruits with their high fluid content.

Research has confirmed that vegetables picked and frozen when in season are actually higher in nutrients than those flown in, out of season, from abroad. So, the vitamin content of frozen peas, beans, sweetcorn, carrots and cauliflower is significantly higher than fresh vegetables imported from Italy, Turkey and Spain.

In season now and why to choose local produce

Spinach, leaves and berries

Most varieties of fruits and vegetables found in supermarkets are chosen first and foremost for yield, growth rate, and ability to withstand long-distance transport. Unfortunately, these traits which benefit international produce distribution come at the cost of nutritional quality. For example, different varieties of spinach and berries differ in appearance and taste, as well as their vitamin, mineral content, in particular vitamins C and K. Local growers are more likely to prioritize taste and nutritional quality over durability when making decisions on variety.

Apples, peaches and tomatoes

Fruits, such as apples, peaches, and tomatoes are climacteric, which means they are capable of generating a ripening hormone after being detached from the plant. Climacteric fruits will change in taste, colour and texture as they reach and pass the peak production of this hormone. Generally, the more mature the product, the shorter its post-harvest life. So, if destined for distant markets, climacteric fruits are often harvested as early as possible, in order to withstand mechanical harvesting and long-distance transport without damage.  While full colour may be achieved after harvest, nutritional quality is not. For example, total vitamin C content of tomatoes and peaches has been shown to be higher when these crops are picked ripe from the plant which is attributable to increased sun exposure while still attached to the plant.

New potatoes

During storage and transportation of fruit and vegetables respiration and enzymatic activity continue, during which time they can suffer changes in nutritional value and sensory quality including loss of texture, appearance and flavour, especially if factors such as temperature, atmosphere, relative humidity and sanitation are not well regulated. Local produce is stored for less time and usually in superior conditions and transported relatively shorter distances minimising nutrient loss such as vitamin C in new potatoes.

The bottom line

Making the change to eat seasonal local produce can benefit you in many ways. A higher intake of nutrients such as vitamin C and vitamin K, can help to boost immunity and bone health for instance. There is also a tremendous sense of wellbeing when you change your diet and start to include new foods. This can boost your mood, make you feel more energised and improve your sleep. You may also find that one good habit can lead to another, maybe you will start to drink more water, which in turn improves energy levels and can make you feel more motivated to exercise. Enjoying the taste and flavours of seasonal produce, such as summer berries, can provide that satisfaction you might normally crave from sugary snacks. Making this healthy swap will stabilise blood sugar levels, which in turn regulates appetite and prevents hunger pangs between meals and ultimately help to control your weight.