Are Supplements Necessary?

supplementThere has been a lot of talk regarding the necessity, or not, of vitamin supplementation. Some argue that our poor, inadequate diets require it. Others purport that we glean enough from the variety of foods we eat in addition to fortification of grains, so taking supplements is just a huge waste of money. Who are we to believe?

I get asked this question every day. “Should I be taking a supplement?” My answer? It depends. I agree that not everyone needs a supplement. Our ancestors went without popping pills every day and arguably did ok, in most cases. Maybe this fight against supplementation is warranted. On the other hand, we all know people and specific cases where supplements were extremely helpful. Iron deficiency, B12 deficiencies, and Vitamin C deficiencies are just a few examples. Also those with clearly inadequate diets would, I believe most would agree, benefit from some sort of supplementation.

What is the correct answer then? Again, it depends.  There are so many factors that should go into the decision of whether to take a vitamin or not. Despite what online articles might tell you, it’s not a black or white issue. Let’s walk through the areas I typically assess with clients to determine if supplements are worth considering.

1. The number one factor I assess when determining the need for vitamin supplementation is the client’s current diet. Are they getting a varied diet, supplying a variety of nutrients throughout the day? Or, are they eating the same foods every single day, many of which are nutrient-poor? If the client’s diet is not meeting their needs, of course the first step is to help them correct the issue. Along with better diet, however, supplementation can be helpful in rebuilding nutrient stores in the body. Sometimes we recommend specific nutrients of concern, say calcium, Vitamin D, B vitamins, etc, and other times we go straight to a multivitamin to help cover all the bases. Our goal is to support health through optimal nutrient status, and supplementation, at least in the short term, is one way to help clients achieve that.

2. The next factor I always address is overall health. Are there specific disease states that my increase the need for certain nutrients? Are there potentially genetic factors whereby the client does not use nutrients as optimally as they should, thereby requiring a higher intake to enhance absorption? In these cases, short-term or long-term supplementation at regular or sometimes much higher doses are warranted. Please note that vitamin supplementation for disease conditions or at higher doses than commonly recommended should be evaluated by a medical practitioner before commencing.

For example, some diabetics may be deficient in chromium. Chromium is a micronutrient that works with insulin to help it do its job. Obviously insulin function is very important to a diabetic, hence a diabetic might consider chromium supplementation in their treatment plan.

In terms of genetic issues, one example is someone with the MTHFR mutation, which causes a defect in the enzyme that helps convert folate into methyl-folate. Methyl-folate then goes on to make another product called SAMe via another enzymatic process, which is then used used in hundreds of reactions throughout the body. If someone is not utilizing their folate as they should, symptoms can result. Supplementation can be a huge and necessary help.

3. The third area I address is lab data. Does the client have lab results reflecting overt deficiencies? Often many people don’t even realize they have a deficiency until testing is done to assess. Based on lab data we can pinpoint appropriate supplements that might be necessary in the short-term to correct a nutrient problem before it becomes a major health concern that they do realize.

4. And the last area I assess is general need based on location. I live in the Pacific Northwest. We are chronically Vitamin D deficient. Almost all of my clients should be taking some level of Vitamin D. Iodine is another example. Some parts of the country and in some communities in particular iodine-rich foods are almost non-existent. These groups might benefit from standard supplementation when there are known, widespread deficiencies.

So now that we have a better understanding of how to assess when and where nutrient supplementation might be needed, the next big question I often get is asked is, “Does it matter which brand I take?” The answer to that question is yes!

Quality is a huge concern in the supplement world. That is probably the number one reason supplements in general have a poor reputation. Numerous reports and studies have caught supplement manufacturers lying about the contents of their products or outright deceiving customers on what they even contain.

You may remember this story from a couple of years ago where several herbal products in common retail stores (Target, various drug stores) were tested for authenticity. They found that many of the products they looked at did not even contain the herb listed. In fact, some were filled with common houseplant substances instead of the healing herb they were touting.1  I can see why consumers would be suspicious. (see story link below)

Clearly, you do need to be careful about the products you choose. Unfortunately the choices are overwhelming, even to me! How do you decide?

The easiest answer is to ask your health practitioner what, if any brands, they use or recommend. I personally have my go-to’s that I know are safe and effective. Other practitioners have their trusted products. Typically these are from well-known, established companies with documented testing procedures, quality control measures, etc. Many of these brands are trusted and recommended by doctors, naturopaths, dietitians, and chiropractors. Some can be found at your local supplement store, and others need to be obtained at a natural pharmacy or online. Almost none, just for reference, come from the local drug store (Walgreens, Rite Aid, etc). It’s usually best to buy from a reputable supplement store, and even better to walk in with a specific product in mind, lest you get confused and/or tempted by the multitude of options.

Conclusion? Despite what media reports might say, supplements can be useful. Does it mean you need to run out today and get a general multivitamin just to be safe? Absolutely not. The key above all else is to improve your diet choices for optimal health and then evaluate if further “assistance” is needed. Don’t pay attention to all those latest fads on TV telling you what you need. Eat healthy, listen to your body, and employ the advice of a qualified health practitioner to better assess what supplements would be helpful, if any. You will save yourself a lot of time and, not to mention, a heap of money.

If you are not feeling at your best and wondering if supplementation is something you should consider, or if your medicine cabinet is jammed full of supplements and you are not sure if they are the right ones, reach out! We can do a general assessment to figure out what you need to make sure your body is working at its best.


Turmeric: Nature’s Wonder Drug….. or Not?

Unless you’ve been living underground, you have likely heard an overwhelming amount of information related to turmeric this past year. Somewhere along the way it was awarded super-spice status and now can be found almost anywhere you look, from supplements, to grocery store products, to even toothpaste!

The benefits of this wonder-spice are mainly anti-inflammatory in nature and for that it has been reported helpful in many diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, depression, and possibly even cancer. In Indian culture they even use it topically to speed wound healing. What can’t this spice do?

Recently, however, a report came out saying that we were duped. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has little bioactive activity in the body. The report pointed out few studies showing curcumin itself to have any health benefits, and that in fact the compound often breaks down before it can elicit any sort of positive health impact.1

Oh no! How could we have gone so far astray, especially regarding an ancient spice that has been used for centuries therapeutically in other countries? Is it simply placebo affect?

Let’s hold up for just one second. For starters, before we go dumping all our turmeric capsules down the toilet, let’s read the article fully. What exactly are they saying?

Pay careful attention to the wording. The author in this article is mainly discussing the inability to successfully create a drug utilizing curcumin. Essentially they are saying we have been unable to isolate this active compound in such a way that has a positive and reproducible affect in the human body. Instead of acting on a target protein as they had hoped, the compound broke down and apparently produced no anti-inflammatory result. The article then goes on to say that we have very few published studies to show any benefits from turmeric, and specifically, curcumin usage, so in their conclusion, the time and money spent on turmeric is worthless.

That is all very interesting, however it is also misleading. First of all, just because they cannot isolate curcumin in a stable form suitable as a drug does not mean that curcumin does not work. The body, as we discover daily, works in mysterious ways. Simply because curcumin does not work on one specific target protein does not mean that it is not producing health benefits by other means.

Secondly, we do in fact have some studies to show beneficial affects. Do a quick search on PubMed and you will see what I mean. Some of these studies use the isolated curcumin, and others use the turmeric whole. Both do have research to show some effectiveness. One study, in fact, showed that turmeric was just as effective as ibuprofen in reducing pain from osteoarthritis.2 That is exciting news if you ask me! In fact there are many studies showing positive outcomes with arthritis patients.

Additionally, there are also many in-vitro and rat studies demonstrating the anti-inflammatory benefits this spice can have. While obviously these results are not always directly relatable or applicable to humans, the take-away is that this compound is very active and holds promise for a wide variety of disease states.

On the whole, based on this one critique, I would not be so fast to discount the powerful effects turmeric can have for our health. Ancient tradition and wisdom aside, there are actually studies showing benefit which should lead us to conclude that turmeric is actually doing something, but maybe not in the precise way we are looking at it currently.

Don’t forget that like with most things in nature, compounds work synergistically. Another reason why food, not supplements and fortification, is paramount for health. For example, we know that the phytochemicals in fruit are more powerful when eaten together in the whole food. When we try to isolate specific phytochemicals to make a pill, we find that the compound is unstable and frankly doesn’t work. But these compounds DO work when ingested in the right form and combination that nature intended.

All that to say, keep up with your turmeric if you find it to be working for you. Consider eating it in the whole form in cooking rather than isolated pill forms. If you do choose a pill, purchase from a reputable company and even consider purchasing the same forms used in the studies. When using the whole spice for the root, combine it with other foods known to enhance the bioavailability such as fats and black pepper.

The use of spices, and especially turmeric, is a great addition to an overall healthy diet. While important to take into consideration, don’t let one detracting article like this completely change your viewpoint just yet.


If you need advice on how to get more anti-inflammatory foods and spices in your diet, I’d love to talk! Arrange a time to meet with me and we can get you on a plan to reduce inflammation and get your health back on track.

See below for a few great recipes utilizing this wonder spice to get you started!

Turmeric “Milk”

Slow Cooker Chicken Tikka Masala

Turmeric Cauliflower

Red Lentil Dahl


Image courtesy of smarnad at

Artificial Sweeteners and our Children’s Health

Recent articles have discussed the growing use of artificial sweeteners among children in the US.  It seems, with the increased understanding of how harmful sugar is to our health, especially in youth, a trend towards artificial sweeteners has begun. But is it safe?

Artificial sweeteners include an array of chemical concoctions including products like aspartame, acesulfame, neotame, saccharin, advantame, and sucralose, among others. The most common plant based option is stevia.

What makes these artificial sweeteners so attractive, not surprisingly, is that they increase the sweetness of a food without the added carbs and calories. To many parents, this seems like an ideal alternative to real sugar, especially given all the advertisements about how these no- and low-calorie sweeteners help people lose weight and balance blood glucose levels. In some cases, the switch isn’t even known to parents. Many products tout lower sugar and calories while failing to point out the swap from real to fake sugars.

Unfortunately, there are many problems with the use of artificial sweeteners in children. If you are a parent, it is imperative that you know this information. Artificial sweeteners are far from safe and may even cause lasting damage to a child’s health. Let’s run through the main concerns so you can make an educated choice on how these sweeteners are used, or not, in your family.

  1. On taste: Artificial sweeteners, when used frequently, train a child to expect very sweet foods. On the whole, artificial sweeteners can be anywhere from 180 to 20,000 times sweeter than regular table sugar! If not used in low doses, a child can easily become conditioned to overly sweet foods. Instead of decreasing sugary foods, it may only increase them later in life when they start making food choices for themselves outside of the home.
  1. On weight: In research we see few beneficial effects of artificial sweeteners on weight. Kids, in general, are very attuned to their caloric needs. A decrease in one area usually leads to an increase in another. There are a whole host of other foods included at meals and snacks, and just cutting calories from soda or candy will not make up for a consistently unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity. Touting these lower kcal junk foods is not the answer to our obesity epidemic.
  1. On blood sugar: Artificially sweetened products are often promoted for their beneficial effect on blood sugar. By replacing the sugar, the theory is we should be able to keep our blood sugar more stable and prevent those spikes that can lead to weight gain and obesity. When consumed in small quantities and with a variety of other foods at a meal, the effects might be somewhat positive in that respect. However, when used in excess and at the expense of other more natural carbohydrate foods, the body, it seems, can “tricked” into thinking there is glucose entering the body. In response, high levels of insulin are released to deal with this onslaught of “sugar.” This can then trigger a hypoglycemic episode where blood sugar goes too low and/or increased hunger signals are sent to get that carb hit the brain is looking for. A harmful cycle can begin in which insulin and glucose levels are not well maintained starting in childhood, and this may eventually lead to insulin resistance and an increased risk for disease, namely diabetes, later in life.
  1. On healthy diet: With this increase in artificial sweeteners comes an obvious fact. We are feeding out kids more processed foods. These processed foods are coming at the expense of natural, whole foods which contain an abundance of nutrition that our growing kids need. Starting at an early age we are teaching out kids to rely on and prefer processed foods to more natural choices. While not necessarily harmful in the short term, many of these foods are nutritionally inadequate for our youth. Even in adults we are seeing poor intake of various nutrients when processed foods comprise a large portion of the diet, and this is likely happening with our kids as well. While meaning well in most cases, many parents are setting their kids up to prefer processed foods with the consequence of potential nutrient deficiencies.

These are the main reasons I strongly hesitate against the use of artificial sweeteners in the diets of our children. Apart from being unnatural, they really just aren’t necessary. They are not the answer to the problems we are seeking to solve. Instead they create risk in terms of adequate nutrient intake and even disease risk later in life.

Parents, instead of resorting to artificial sweeteners, I implore you to do the hard work of teaching your kids to enjoy savory and lesser-sweet foods. It’s hard work no doubt and yes, you end up being the bad guy on many an occasion, but your kids will benefit in the long run. Better yet, start very early on if you still have the chance and set those dietary patterns from the start.


Consumption of low-calorie sweeteners jumps by 200 percent in US children.

Artificial sweetener use among children: epidemiology, recommendations, metabolic outcomes, and future directions.

The problem with sugar-free kids.

If you are a parent having a tough time getting your kids to dump the sugar, I’d love to help. Get in contact with me and let’s see if we can get your family on a healthier path. It’s never too late!


Is saturated fat good for you?

saturated-fatLikely by now you’ve heard the debate. Is fat, and in particular saturated fat, bad for you or not? In the 80’s and 90’s we made fat the villain and steered our entire country towards a low-fat mentality, but in recent years perceptions have evolved. Studies have come out to contradict previous research that found fat harmful to cardiovascular health. Even more recently we found that some studies were in fact manipulated to spin sugar in a more positive light and lay the health blame squarely on fat. Just a few months ago NPR reported that the sugar industry paid scientists to bias their research so that fat appeared to be the main concern in regards to heart health.1 So, what are we to believe?

Studies still go both ways, but we certainly have a growing collection of research to show that fat does not deserve to be treated as an evil part of our diet. Despite years of shunning fat in favor of carbs and protein, we appear to have reaped zero health benefits. We did not see heart disease risk decrease. We did not see waistlines slim down. Increased consumption of Snackwells and low-fat lattes did not result in the statistics health experts were hoping for.

Now, in fact, a recent Norwegian study suggests that fat, and again in particular saturated fat, is good for us.2 What? How could the research be so polar opposite to our previous understanding?

In the study, the researchers did not simply take subjects, put them on high-fat diets, and observe the results, as many previous studies have done. No, they put people on carefully crafted high fat diets that were rich in unprocessed or lowly processed choices, such as butter, cream and cold pressed oils. These were combined with a decent intake of vegetables and whole grains while simultaneously avoiding white flour and sugar. When compared against cohorts on a high carbohydrate diet, the high fat diet participants showed decreases in fat storage and disease risk, even when the subject’s overall energy intake increased when compared to their previous diet.

This study provides a perfect example of how the entire makeup of the diet, as well as other lifestyle factors, is paramount. Singling out a particular macronutrient to vilify, while newsworthy and income-generating for some, unfortunately, has not benefited public health.

Clearly, cholesterol numbers and other markers for cardiovascular disease are not independently influenced by fat intake. There are many other factors involved: sugar consumption, overall energy intake, genetics, and lifestyle factors (smoking, exercise, stress, etc). By singling out fats alone we miss the bigger picture, and in terms of public health, we put people’s lives at risk by giving them misleading information.

As with most things, the answer is actually very simple. Unfortunately, simple answers do not make great billboards and campaigns. But the truth is this: an overall healthy diet is paramount, NOT exclusion of all fat.

So the next time you think about avoiding that butter on your bread, think twice and reconsider the bread before you demonize the butter. Healthy fats are our friends.



Low Carb Diet and Gut Health: Are we doing more harm than good?

vegetablesLow-carb diets are all the rage right now, and with good reason. They have shown promising results in promoting weight loss and encouraging people to eat less white flour, sugar, and other unhealthy foods. Hard to argue with that. I’m on board.

What’s the big deal? Well, research is now indicating that diets such as these, which are very low in fiber, might be a problem when it comes to the health of our gut. While we know fiber is important for regularity, supporting healthy blood sugar, and increasing satiety, did you also know that fiber feeds your healthy gut bacteria, or the microbiome as it is commonly known?

The problem is, as seen via research, that this decline in fiber corresponds with a decline in microbiome diversity. In simple terms, over time we starve out many beneficial strains of healthy glut flora residing in our digestive tract. Additionally at the same time we promote more of the unhealthy and less desirable strains.

For example, a recent study looked at microbiome diversity among rural Africans and the average US population. They found much greater diversity and more beneficial strains of bacteria in the guts of Africans. Not exactly surprising. What is interesting is that when they switched their diets and fed this group of Africans the Standard American Diet for two weeks, stool analysis showed a significant decrease in the “good” bugs.1 This was after only two weeks! What does this say for those of us consuming low fiber diets for weeks or years on end?

This creates some cause for concern because research has shown that the health of our microbiome influences the health of the host.2 In other words, our personal health is influenced by the bugs living in our digestive tract. For example, Crohn’s Disease and other inflammatory bowel diseases seem to be linked with alterations in the microbiome. 3  Also more and more studies are linking obesity and increases of certain types of bacteria in the guts of Americans. In rats, we can directly influence their weight by the type of bacteria we put in their system!4 Fascinating stuff, and yet scary at the same time.

If you are one of those embarking on a low carb diet, don’t fret! It can be done in a healthy way to support your health goals, while at the same time supporting  your microbiome. Clearly the main goal is to keep up the fiber in whatever way possible. Let’s talk about some ways to do that.

Main key when going low carb:  Include as many fiber sources as you can!

  • Fruit: Choose the lower carb ones like berries, avocado, tomatoes. For higher carb fruits, keep the portions smaller.
  • Vegetables: Make sure to get as much vegetable intake as you can every day! Many veg options are low carb and can be included in abundance.  Add lots of low carb leafy greens and cruciferous (broccoli, cauliflower), or consider green beans, zucchini, peppers, etc. Consume starchier choices like squash, carrots, peas and potatoes in smaller amounts.
  • Eat nuts and seeds! These are a great low carb option with protein and fat but which also have an appreciable amount of fiber. Think almonds, walnuts, cashews, flax seed, chia seed, hemp seed, pumpkin seeds…. you get the idea.
  • Eat beans! Yes they do have carbs, but again, watch the portions. Generally about ½ cup of beans equals 15g of carb, so you can have beans and still keep the carbs in check.
  • Don’t forget about fermented foods! These can help replenish and support a healthy microbiome. Try adding a daily dash of sauerkraut, kefir, cultured yogurt, kombucha, pickled veggies, or tempeh.

What about the Ketogenic Diet?

Yes, I realize there is a big push towards the “keto” diet as of late. If you are not aware of this trend, it’s a diet that decreases carbs to the extent that it puts the body in ketosis. This encourages the body to burn fat as fuel, producing ketones, which the body can use in a similar way to carbs. It is extremely low carb, obviously, and followers often test their urine to measure ketones and thereby ensure they are in the state of ketosis. Many health benefits, including weight loss, improved cardiovascular health and neuro-protective benefits have been purported by this plan, and there are many functional and integrative health professionals who are choosing this as a way of life for health and longevity.

The problem is that, if not followed correctly, one can easily over-consume on foods like animal proteins, dairy (like cheese and butter), eggs, artificial sweeteners, and low-carb processed concoctions. Very quickly the diet becomes reduced and limited to a set of foods which are low in carb yet also low in fiber, thus potentially eradicating many healthy bacteria strains from one’s digestive tract.

The keto diet can be done successfully, however, and without drastic harm to the microbiome, if done appropriately, utilizing some of the tips provided above. Also some supplementation with probiotics or increased servings of fermented foods is a good idea.

Hopefully for you low-carb lovers, your fears have been allayed. Look for ways to get in that fiber, enrich your diet with fermented foods, and consider supplementation when needed.

  1. O’Keefe SJ, Li JV, Lahti L, et al. Fat, fibre and cancer risk in African Americans and rural Africans. Nat Commun. 2015;6:6342.
  2. Marchesi JR, Adams DH, Fava F, Hermes GD, Hirschfield GM, Hold G, Quraishi MN, Kinross J, Smidt H, Tuohy KM, Thomas LV, Zoetendal EG, Hart A. The gut microbiota and host health: a new clinical frontier. Gut. 65:330-9, 2016.
  3. Sartor RB. Microbial influences in inflammatory bowel diseases. Gastroenterology. 134:577-94, 2008.
  4. Turnbaugh PJ, Ley RE, Mahowald MA, et al. An obesity-associated gut microbiome with increased capacity for energy harvest. Nature. 444(7122):1027-31, 2006.

If you are thinking about starting a lower carb way of life but need a little guidance, please ask! I would love to help you get a plan in place that cuts down on the carbs but keeps nutrition at its maximum.


The Artificial Coloring of our Holidays

halloween-candyIt’s that time of year again! Colorful confections are hitting the store shelves, and likely your kids, like mine, are begging to purchase those colorful sugar bombs every time you walk into the store. It’s such a constant battle that I try every way possible not to take my little critters shopping with me.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m all for kids having fun and enjoying the holidays we all remember growing up with. Packaged candy treats around this time of year of are one of them.

I know I wrote about this last year, but it bears repeating. My problem, besides the excess of sugar, is the amount of food dyes consumed. It’s just not good. And while you might argue that a small amount of colored candies for a short duration of the year is harmless, I’d like to persuade you otherwise. Artificial colors are a problem, and they are far more prevalent and far-reaching than you think.

Besides Halloween candy, food dyes are used in numerous products aimed towards our kids. A few examples include boxed macaroni and cheese, yogurts, cereals, jello, frostings, and even some snack crackers. Our kids are consuming these additives all year long, with a sudden spike around Halloween time.

Why should we care? For one, they are completely unnecessary, and the sole purpose of them is to sell more product … to your kids. Second, they are created from chemicals derived from petroleum.

Third, and perhaps most important, they can have detrimental health effects on the little bodies of our kids. Hopefully that perks your ears a bit.

A 2012 meta-analysis on studies related to artificial colors and hyperactivity in children found a positive correlation, meaning that food dyes were linked to over-active behavior. In 2007, even before this, a study in the UK showed an increase in hyperactivity in children consuming artificial colors, prompting the government to require labeling and warnings on products. Based on similar studies, Norway and Austria have banned them completely.

Additionally, newer research has shown that artificial colors can increase the risk for food sensitivities and leaky gut. Yikes! How you ask? Well, turns out that food dyes, when in the digestive tract, bind up some of your digestive enzymes, namely trypsin, which then inhibits the breakdown of proteins. These larger proteins ends up in the small intestine undigested, triggering inflammation, which then inflames the intestines and sets the stage for the immune system to over-react to foods. You also increase the risk for malabsorption and other conditions related to leaky gut (poor digestion, body aches, eczema, neurological issues, etc). Not good for our kids.

Personal story alert! My one experience with the detrimental effect of artificial colors is related to night terrors. Your kids ever have one of those? Oh man they are not fun. Imagine your 2 year old screaming in the middle of the night, eyes rolled back in their head, not even entirely awake, and nothing will calm him down. It’s terrifying. After a couple of these frightening episodes we traced it back to a source. Every time he had a candy with blue dye, that night an episode would occur. Cut out the blue dye, no more night terrors. I realize this is not the night terror cure for everyone, but do think of food reactions in these cases. For us, thankfully, it was a simple fix, and afterwards we resolved to be more vigilant on additives and preservatives in our kid’s diet.

This year, do your kids, and everyone’s kid, a favor by not distributing candy using artificial colors. Also search your cabinets, read labels, and discard any products that use them as well.

Thanks to the hard work by researchers and health advocates, many companies are starting to re-formulate their food products. You can, in fact, find many viable alternatives that will be just as unhealthy sugar-wise, but won’t overload our kids on artificial colorings. Check Amazon, online organic grocers like, or your local co-op. Better yet, distribute a few toys or stickers instead.

Don’t worry, Halloween will still be fun and your little angels won’t turn into little devils in the process. Good luck this holiday season!

Easy Tips to Spice up Your Diet!

I love adding spices to my cooking. Besides some of the well-hyped health benefits, they just make food more interesting. The same ingredients from one dish can be magically transformed into something completely different just based on the spice profile. It can set apart one region’s or even one person’s cooking from another. It separates, say, East coast cuisine from the West, as well as Aunt Emma’s chili from your own concoction. Spices make all the difference.

Now, truth be told, I’m more talk than action. I have over 40 spices in my cabinet, carefully labeled and arranged alphabetically, but honestly they only get touched maybe once or twice a week. Clearly I like the idea of spices, but practically speaking I am not as committed as I let on. I hope that is about to change, both for you and for me.

Recently I had the privilege of traveling to India. Besides the wild colors, bold aromas, and beautiful antiquities, the food is an attraction in its own merit. Oh the food. I wish I could transport myself back there as I write this. The food was so rich, so colorful, so flavorful, and so fragrant. It completely engaged all the senses. You got the sense that food is vitally important. It is not an afterthought but an important and well-planned part of the day. Along with that, the use of spices for creating unique flavor profiles is paramount.

Coming back after two weeks to Seattle, I realized my own diet was really quite bland. Kale salad, while healthy, doesn’t pack any punch in the flavor or the color department. Good ol’ turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread? Pretty boring all around unless you bump it up with some heavy hitting mustard and maybe some tangy arugula and heirloom tomatoes. Even still, on the whole, our food is just drab. No wonder many Indians retain much of their familiar ways of cooking when moving here, and some have even opened Indian grocers to import traditional food items (which I think we can all say we are extremely grateful for!).

Besides taste and cultural norms, there are other reasons to value spice in your life. As I alluded to earlier, there are many health benefits to including more spice in your diet.

Number one is the anti-inflammatory benefit. Many spices have specific properties that allow them to act as potent anti-oxidants. Turmeric is one of the currently most popular and studied examples. Countless research papers have shown turmeric, and its active component curcumin, to have anti-oxidant properties. Other spices that shine as anti-oxidants stars, although far less publicized, include oregano, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and mustard seed, among countless others.

Number two is that many spices act as anti-microbial agents. In fact, back in the day spices were highly valued due to the lack of refrigeration. Heavy use of spices could kill disease causing pathogens and keep food safe to eat. These properties also apply internally by killing off unwanted bacteria and viruses. A great reason to increase spice consumption during the winter!

Some spices also have other very specific health benefits, such as helping to reduce blood pressure, calming tense nerves, quieting nausea, or easing digestion. They can be used in appropriate doses therapeutically, however by including a wide variety in cooking you are ensuring your body benefits from a broad range of these health-supportive spices.

So returning from India and feeling quite depressed about my “boring” diet, I have become resolved to practice what I preach. I am no longer satisfied with a few dashes of chili powder here or a few shakes of Italian seasoning there. No, I want to re-create that depth and richness I so fully enjoyed abroad in my own cooking at home. Armed with a bagful of new spices (thank you Kerala spice shop and US customs for letting me cart all these goodies home!), I have found new resolve to cook more interesting dishes and significantly ramp up my intake of herbs and spices.

Are you on board with me? If so you might be wondering, how do we get started?

First of all, we need some ideas. And by ideas I mean recipes. I have very little experience with cooking these types of dishes, so recipes and instructions are my best friend. Believe me, I never whizz this stuff up off the top of my head. I am just not that talented in the culinary department.

What ideas do I have, you ask? Curry, curry, curry….for starters. There are so many amazing curry options, and contrary to popular belief, they do not have to be spicy. I have been making mild curries that my kids enjoy, many of which include various types of vegetables and lean meats. Often you can get protein, veg, and healthy fats all in one dish. Add a little rice or roti on the side and you have a complete meal.

Other cuisines to look into include African and Middle Eastern cooking. These also tend to rely heavily on many types of spices. Right now I am eyeing my Exotic Ethiopian Cooking cookbook sitting on the shelf beside me, trying to ready my brain for diving in one of these days. Gear yourself up with a variety of recipes, either from books, magazines, or the internet, and start to catalog the types of dishes you want to attempt.

Next we need ingredients, and by that I mean the actual spices. This is the tricky part! I have found that some spices are exceedingly hard to come by at local grocers. If you can, find ethnic markets in your area and explore. We are blessed with many international communities in and around Seattle, so I am planning some reconnaissance missions in the near future. Otherwise, search online if what you are seeking remains elusive.

Now, once you acquire the spices you need, I strongly suggest you invest in some spice jars and maybe even a label maker to get yourself organized. I squarely have this part down, thanks to Ikea and Amazon. I love to look at my neat rows of labeled, alphabetized jars. I just need to start using them!

To help get you started, here are a few links to some easy yet amazingly delicious dishes that will heighten your senses with new flavors, colors and aromas. Give these, and others you find, a try and experience a whole new way of cooking. Don’t forget about those health benefits I mentioned, either!

Lamb and Chickpea Curry

Kerala Fish Curry

Chicken Biryani

If organization is what you seek, here are link to products I have found helpful as far as spice organization and labeling (and no, I do not make any money by offering these links. Simply trying to show helpful examples!).

For my curry spices:

For the rest of my spices:

Label Maker:

Good luck, and please feel free to share your creative recipes and ideas. Find me on Facebook and post your spiced-up creations!

Eating Healthy on Vacation: Can it be Done?

summer-travelsIt’s that time of year again… summer travel! The thing I hear over and over again is this. “Well, I’m ready to start eating healthy, but first I’ve got this vacation.” There are so many things wrong with this statement, and let me tell you why.

First of all, getting a healthy diet in place, even right before a big vacation, is super important. It is never too early or too late to start implementing those diet tweaks that are going to work towards improving your health. Now is the time to start. The sooner the better.

Secondly, these changes are meant to be permanent lifestyle changes, not a temporary fix. I see people time and time again work so hard at improving lab numbers on a sheet of paper, only to let their gains slip back once they hit the mark their doctor was looking for. Don’t let that be you! Take steps, even if small, tiny ones, to improve your diet for the long haul.

So all that being said, you don’t check your diet at the hotel front door! Your “new” diet and lifestyle goes WITH you on vacation.

Now, I realize this is easier said than done, especially when a new way of eating is not yet an ingrained habit. Here are a few tips you can use on your next vacation to make eating healthy a whole lot easier.

  1. If at all possible, stay at a place with a full kitchen. That way you can prepare most of your foods at “home.” Plus, you save a whole lot of money (and time) on eating out. That makes more time for fun outdoors!
  2. Ditch the fast food. If traveling by road, stop at grocery stores instead of fast food. For the same price as a fast food meal for 4, you can easily buy a loaf of bread, deli meat, condiments, etc and make your own sandwiches. Or you can buy them at the store’s deli. Whatever you do, say no to fast food.
  3. Pack snacks! As much as possible, bring your own healthy snacks on trips. Personally I like to pack baggies with dried fruit and nuts. That keeps me away from sugary things you find in convenient stores and again, saves time. In my opinion that means more time at the beach and less time searching for food.
  4. When you do eat out, plan it out. Research restaurants carefully so that they are not only enjoyable places but also have healthy options. Going in with a game plan by reviewing menus online can really help keep you on track.
  5. Hit the gym! Or at the very least, plan in some exercise during your trip. Again, this is not a vacation from healthy habits. If you are a runner, plan a morning run through the city or along the beach. If you like the gym, maybe there is a workout room in the hotel. Or if walking is your thing, get out there and spend the day sight seeing. Keeping up the movement will help when those little splurges do come along.
  6. Speaking of splurges, think 80/20 rule. Basically, eat healthy 80% of the time and allow for some fun foods 20% of the time. This gives you some freedom for, say, an ice cream on the boardwalk, or a dessert after dinner, but still reminds you to stick to healthy eating most of the time. Along with continuing the exercise, you will be far less likely to gain weight while out having fun.
  7. Lastly, try not to plan all the fun around food. A vacation is a chance to see a new place or visit with old friends. Don’t make food the focus. Plan adventurous outings, meet ups with friends, or even spa days to relax and rejuvenate. Food is important, of course, but as I’ve said all along, keep to your goals. Enjoy the place and the people and come back with amazing memories and experiences.

Hope that gives you a few ideas to stay on track this summer, even with all those fun summer plans. Just remember, a vacation is a great time to get away and relax, but it is not a break from your health! Eat well, stay well, and continue to enjoy those fun getaways!

IBS and SIBO: One and the Same?

Woman Suffering From Abdominal PainDo any of these sound familiar to you? Painful bloating. Irregular bowel movements (constipation, diarrhea, or both). Excessive gas. Fatigue. Reflux. Abdominal cramping. In other words, does your overall digestion generally just suck?

For many, these types of symptoms result in a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). What is IBS? It is a condition affecting the large intestine, causing many of the symptoms previously listed. In many cases it acts as a catch-all diagnosis when other more definable problems, like Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis, have been ruled out. IBS often does not produce any damage to the intestines but certainly causes a host of unpleasant symptoms. Treatment is usually dietary modification and sometimes medications to ease the discomfort.

What we are now learning about IBS, however, is that there are a large portion of folks for which the large intestine is actually not the sole player. For some, it is actually the small intestine (SI) where the action is happening. In fact, researchers have uncovered a condition by which bacterial imbalances occurs in the SI, setting the stage for a whole host of symptoms that look just like IBS. They call this condition Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). So what if… just what if, a large number of these “IBS” people don’t actually have IBS. What if it’s SIBO?

Well, that is exactly what is being reported. Currently it is estimated that about 20% of people in this country have IBS, and about 60% of those are actually caused by SIBO. That is certainly something to stop and think about. For many IBS sufferers, we are focusing on the wrong treatments.

So what exactly is SIBO and how to we treat it? Let’s talk a bit about normal digestion first so we can set the stage for what goes wrong in SIBO. Bear with me for this exciting trip down the digestive tract.

When we chew and swallow, there is an arsenal of acid in our stomach at the ready to start breaking down certain amino acids and killing unwanted bacteria that we consume. As food continues its journey through the system, it hits the small intestine (SI) where the acid is neutralized and digestive enzymes move in to start breaking down our meal, enabling the absorption of nutrients. Whatever is leftover, mainly fiber and other undigested material, is pushed into the colon and prepared for excretion. Although I’ve simplified this system greatly, it’s a pretty amazing process.

Guiding food through the system is a process call peristalsis. We have peristalsis in the colon, pushing stool to the colon for excretion, and we also have peristalsis in the small intestine, pushing food contents through to allow for nutrient absorption and the rest for eventual excretion. In the SI, one important peristaltic motion is coordinated by what we call the Migrating Motor Complex, or the MMC. The MMC, in the fasting state (ie 90 -120min after we eat), initiates a cleansing wave that helps push contents through and out of the SI. It also pushes unwanted bacteria out the door.

Also, between each part of the digestive tract we have valves that help keep food where it should be and, ideally, moving in a downward fashion. Between the esophagus and the stomach we have the esophageal sphincter, and between the SI and large intestine we have the ileocecal valve. Both are intended to prevent back flow from the previous organ.

When all aforementioned parts work as designed, we have healthy digestion. At any point in this delicate system, however, we can have malfunctions, then setting the stage for unwanted bacteria to take hold in the SI.

First, a person may lack adequate stomach acid. While this alone is usually not enough to cause SIBO, it certainly can contribute, especially when combined with other malfunctions. How many of us in America are on proton pump inhibitors? Or may have H Pylori? Low stomach acid equals impaired digestion and an increase in bacteria reaching the SI.

Also, there can be a breakdown in the function of the MMC, inhibiting the cleansing wave that is supposed to take that unwanted bacteria out and away. This is a definite contributor to SIBO. What can cause a breakdown in the MMC? Well, food poisoning for one. Food poisoning produces a toxin that damages the nerves of the SI, inhibiting the action of the MMC. Instead of pushing those critters out, they are allowed to stay and they set up shop. Getting them out can be a monumental task.

Another impairment leading to SIBO is dysfunction with the ileocecal valve. If that valve is faulty and allows back flow from the large intestine, bacteria can get into the SI which normally should not be there. This again sets the stage for SIBO to develop.

Other potential causes can be structural abnormalities in the SI that decrease the movement of contents, as well as adhesions that allow bacteria to find a foothold and stake a claim in the land of the SI. Such a complicated mess, isn’t it?

How does one know if they have SIBO? Well, I find that new onset of persistent gas and severe bloating is one clue. It certainly is not diagnostic, but it definitely perks my ears. Diet often affects this, and clients will note that certain foods make the condition better or worse.

Other hints are the IBS-like symptoms that we described earlier. Additionally there may be a host of vague symptoms that were initially attributed to other causes. These include reflux/GERD, fatigue, joint pain, headaches/migraines, brain fog, and weight changes, among others. Some of these are likely due to food sensitivity reactions brought on by the SIBO. Bacteria in the SI increases the risk for leaky gut, so often food sensitivities and SIBO go hand in hand. There can also be malabsorption due to the bacteria damaging the brush border of the SI where our enzymes are produced. Less digestive enzymes equals less absorption of nutrients. Seriously, what a gigantic mess.

So what do we do? Well, a good first step is getting tested. Yes, there are tests to see if you have these buggers in your system, thank goodness. If you do, there are specific prescription and herbal protocols that can be utilized. These options can be discussed with a knowledgeable MD or ND that can recommend the right course of action.

Diet interventions can also be extremely helpful and are a key part of the process. The thing is, those unwanted bacteria in the SI like to ferment specific carbohydrate substrates, so diets like FODMAPs, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, GAPs and others can be useful. I specialize in using these diets with clients as a key part of SIBO management.

Additional lifestyle factors can help as well. These include meal spacing (let theMMC do it’s thing!), stress reduction, and food safety (reduce the risk for food poisoning!). These are helpful not only during treatment but are also a key part of prevention.

Clearly, SIBO is a critical consideration in cases of digestive complaints, especially those with IBS. In fact many IBS diagnoses are actually SIBO in disguise as the symptoms between the two often overlap. Hopefully SIBO knowledge will continue to spread, allowing millions of people in this country to get the appropriate treatment for a condition that is treatable but unfortunately not yet mainstream in the gastrointestinal community.

Not sure if your digestive issue might be SIBO? I would love to review your health history with you and see what we can uncover. I have a great group of MDs and NDs I refer to if testing and treatment looks like a good course of action, and of course we can discuss dietary protocols that can often get you feeling at least a little better within a week or less. Don’t let these issues fester and only worsen over time. Call asap!


Image courtesy of Ohmega1982 /

L is for Leafy Greens

leafy greens - vegetables“Eat more leafy greens!” Do you hear that all the time? Or is it just me? Seems like a saying that just won’t go away. I know we are always commanded by health gurus to eat this or eat that, but with leafy greens, I think there is a reason this mandate has stuck around.

What are leafy greens anyways? Sounds like a nice word for something clearly leafy and healthy, but are we talking about exactly? Many think spinach, some think lettuce. Both are correct, but it’s more than that. Leafy greens typically entail those greens that are dark green (iceberg you’re out, sorry), and leafy (obviously), which does include spinach and lettuce but also kale, chard, and collard greens.

One question I often get is, “Are they really all that healthy?” It does seem that such a small, flat arrangement of cellulose could not possibly hold much in the way of nutrition, but strangely they pack a hefty nutrient punch.

First of all they are great sources of folate. This is great for women of reproductive age but helpful for all of us in forming red and white blood cells as well as producing DNA and RNA. Folate also helps us utilize carbohydrates as energy (and don’t we all need more energy?). Additionally, for those who have a deficiency in an enzyme called Methylenetetrahydrofolate Reductase (MTHFR for short), dietary folate sources are very important. A good handful of leafy greens every day is a great idea for everyone.

Greens also have vitamin C, believe it or not. I know normally we think citrus, but those dark leaves have an appreciable amount as well. Our bodies use Vitamin C to make collagen, support brain health, and as a potent antioxidant. They also have a good dose of Vitamin which is super important for blood clotting. Vitamin K also works with Calcium, Vitamin D and Magnesium in supporting healthy bones.

Besides vitamins, leafy greens also have important minerals that we need for health. They have some calcium (more good news for bones!) and bit of iron. Since Vitamin C helps plant-based iron sources get absorbed more readily, leafy greens come packed ready for maximum absorption.

All those nutrients packed into an inconspicuous green, fibrous plant… who would have thought? But there is knowing about these facts and then choosing to consume. Basically, do they actually taste any good?

Those same people crying “eat more leafy greens” are also the same ones who typically say leafy greens are delicious. Have you tasted one of those leaves? I think you can safely call it bleh. The key is you have to prepare them. Or douse them in dressing. It’s easy to make them palatable, so don’t dismiss them until you’ve tried a number of variations.

I’m a big fan of keeping them raw as much as possible. Why? Because cooking starts to degrade the vitamins. You won’t get nearly as much folate or Vitamin C if you cook them, but that doesn’t mean you can’t. I do cook them sometimes, such as a nice sauté of greens with garlic and oil, however I also like to keep them fresh, flavored instead with dressings or mixed into flavorful grain or salad dishes. In fact, massaged kale salad is one of my absolute favorites. See the recipe below. It might change your life.

The last wonderful thing about leafy greens? They are low in calories! Everyone wants low calorie, am I right? One cup of spinach has 7 calories. You can’t beat that. Greens for the win.

So go ahead and follow orders the next time you are instructed to “eat more leafy greens.” It’s a command you can trust.

Massaged Kale Salad:

-1 bunch of kale, leaves stripped from the stems and torn into small pieces and put into a large bowl
-Sprinkle 2-3 tsp of olive oil and 1/4- 1/2 tsp of salt
-“Massage” the kale with your hands, squeezing and mixing the kale leaves until they soften, break down, and turn a slightly darker green.

There you have it, massaged kale! Now you can add any tasty additions that you would like. I love to add toasted pecans, dried cranberries, and hemp hearts along with a light dressing. Another great combination is adding some lemon juice with parmesan cheese and minced garlic cloves. Experiment and enjoy!