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HPRC Fitness Arena: Nutrition
Beets are often overlooked in the produce aisle, but they have been gaining popularity for their potential cardiovascular health and performance benefits. This is because beets contain a high amount of nitrate, which improves blood flow to your heart and muscles. While the performance-enhancing benefits of nitrates from beets have yet to be fully established, there are many other reasons to include beets in your lunch or dinner menu. Beets are a great source of fiber, antioxidants, potassium, magnesium, folic acid, and vitamin C—all important nutrients to keep you at the top of your game.
If beets aren’t your favorite food, there are plenty of other nitrate-rich (and nutrient-rich) vegetables, including arugula, rhubarb, lettuce, celery, radishes, and spinach. Try eating roasted beets or a salad with dark-green, leafy vegetables two to three hours before your next workout. Keep in mind that eating a variety of high-quality foods is key to optimal performance, so for more information on proper fueling, see HPRC’s “An Athlete’s Guide to Everyday Nutrient Timing.”
You may know that calcium and vitamin D are important for healthy bones, but do you know that magnesium plays an important role too? People who eat enough magnesium in their diet tend to have higher bone mineral density (a measure of bone strength) than those who do not. Not getting enough magnesium can put you at risk for osteoporosis (weak, fragile bones).
So make sure you get at least the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for magnesium, which is 400–420 mg for men and 310–320 mg for women. According to the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Military Nutrition Research, only 30% of military personnel meet or exceed the recommendations. However, this doesn’t mean you need to start taking magnesium supplements. You can easily get enough magnesium from eating a variety of magnesium-rich foods in each food group:
- Vegetables—dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach
- Fruits—bananas, avocados
- Protein—beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds, as well as fish and seafood
- Grains—fortified cereals and whole-grain bread, rice, and pasta
- Dairy—milk, yogurt, and soymilk
As an added benefit, many of these foods are also rich in other nutrients, such as calcium, that help keep your bones strong. For additional information, see the Magnesium Fact Sheet from the Office of Dietary Supplements. And for information on other nutrients related to bone health, see HPRC’s Eating for healthy joints and bones.
With New Year’s resolutions upon us, weight loss is often at the top of the list for many. However, before you consider a dietary supplement to help your weight-loss goals, be aware of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warnings that these products don’t live up to their claims. Even worse, some can result in serious harm.
Many dietary supplement products marketed for weight loss have been found to contain hidden prescription drugs or compounds that have not been adequately studied in humans. FDA continues to identify “tainted” products and warns consumers to stay away from these tainted products. You can read more about this in FDA’s consumer-health article “Beware of Products Promising Miracle Weight Loss” and watch their video. Also, be sure to check out the Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS) FAQs about Weight Loss for additional information on weight loss and dietary supplements.
You’re watching what you eat. You’re exercising regularly. You’re doing everything right. But for some reason, your weight-loss goal is just out of reach. It seems those “last 10 pounds” are often the hardest ones to shake! Fortunately, with continued effort and persistence, you likely can achieve your weight-loss goals.
If you haven’t done so already, be sure to speak with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian to make sure the goals you’ve set for yourself are realistic, healthy, and sustainable. After that, it’s time to get to work.
Go back to square one. That is, make sure you’re as careful about what you choose to eat now as when you first started on your weight-loss journey. Sometimes we lapse into old habits over time and start “allowing” unhealthy choices to creep back into our diet patterns. Keeping a food diary will help you keep track of what you’re really eating. And don’t forget to watch your portion sizes.
Be a weekend warrior. Many people find it harder to make healthy choices on the weekend—tailgate parties, family celebrations, and road trips all offer opportunities to “slip.” But eating healthy is a full-time job, so it’s important to plan ahead: Take a low-fat dish that you’ve prepared and choose restaurants where you know you’ll have healthy options available.
Stand up for yourself. Literally. Standing, rather than sitting, can burn as many as 200 to 300 calories per day and can help prevent many types of disease. Find as many opportunities in your day to stand, walk, and move as much as you can. Check out HPRC’s blog about “sitting disease” for more information about the risks of sitting too much.
Shake things up. Varying the type and intensity of your exercise is a great way to challenge yourself and prevent boredom—and can make a big difference toward achieving your goals.
Whatever you do, don’t give up. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is important not only in the short term (for your performance as well as your career) but also in the long term, reducing your risk of many diseases including diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer.
Adjusting to life after an amputation often includes adjusting your eating habits. If your goals include improving your health, healing, and returning to your active lifestyle, then nutrition plays an important role in getting you there. Check out HPRC’s Performance Strategies for “Healthy eating for amputees,” which has tips on how to eat healthy and balanced after an amputation.
Vitamin D is an integral part of your immune system, and not having enough could put you at higher risk of respiratory tract infections (RTIs) such as the flu and the common cold. Unfortunately, results are mixed when it comes to taking vitamin D supplements for the prevention and treatment of RTIs. People who are deficient in vitamin D may experience the most immune-protecting effects from vitamin D supplements, but the evidence is limited.
Even though vitamin D supplements may not stop a cold in its tracks, getting enough vitamin D does help optimize your immune system. For best results, strive to get the Recommended Dietary Allowance of vitamin D (600 IU) on a daily basis, not just when an illness is coming on. "Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin," can be harder to obtain in winter, when it’s cold and cloudy and most people spend more time indoors, but you can get vitamin D from foods such as fatty fish and fortified milk, yogurt, and juice. Ask your doctor to test your vitamin D status before you take vitamin D supplements.
Different people react differently to stress, especially when it comes to food, and depending on the cause, intensity, and duration of stress. Whereas some people lose their appetite and skip meals in response to stress, others either overeat or eat unhealthy foods. Under stress, people tend to choose snack-type foods that are high in fat and sugar instead of meal-type foods such as meats, fruits, and vegetables.
Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s essential to survival and part of being a Warfighter. The key is learning how to manage your stress. December is the Military Health System’s Stress Management Month, which is especially appropriate for most of us during the holiday season. Here are some tips to help you reduce your stress and the likelihood of overeating:
- Engage in physical activity most days of the week, and try stress-relieving exercises such as yoga and meditation. Or find other hobbies that you enjoy and that help you feel relaxed.
- If you’re finding it difficult to stop reaching for the kitchen cupboard or refrigerator, make sure you stock your shelves with healthy snacks such as fresh fruit, cut-up veggie sticks, and air-popped popcorn (without the butter).
- Try to keep a food diary to understand the connection between your mood and your food. Keep track of what you eat, when you eat, and your emotions at the times you want to eat.
Learning how to manage your stress can be beneficial in more ways than one. For more information on stress and your health, read the National Institute of Mental Health’s factsheet on adult stress and HPRC’s resources for stress management.
Intermittent fasting has become a popular strategy for weight loss. “Fasting” can mean different things—from fasting as much as 16 hours per day to skipping or restricting caloric intake (for example, to less than 500–600 calories) one or two days a week. Fasting programs may make promises to their followers to lose weight and improve health, but are they safe and effective?
The health benefits claimed for intermittent fasting have mostly come from studies with animals. A few small studies with humans have shown intermittent fasting—eating as usual five days a week and eating 25% less two days per week—may be useful for weight loss. Because these studies were short term, however, the long-term safety and effectiveness of intermittent fasting are unknown.
In addition, it is unclear if intermittent fasting is more effective for weight loss than just eating less on a daily basis. Intermittent fasting could lead to overeating on non-fasting days, and even advocates of intermittent fasting point out that the key to weight-loss success is not to overeat on “normal” eating days.
Eating too few calories over time can result in low levels of vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients, and even the loss of muscle mass. And intermittent fasting can be dangerous for people with medical conditions such as pregnancy, diabetes, or eating disorders.
Common side effects of fasting include lack of energy, headaches, feeling cold, and constipation. Fasting can cause low blood sugar if you aren’t getting enough fuel to your brain, reducing your ability to concentrate and focus and affecting your sleep cycle and mood. These effects can interfere with your body’s ability to perform optimally.
Athletes who fast during Ramadan—a holy month when Muslims are expected to fast daily (no food or water) from pre-dawn prayer to post-sunset—provide some insights into the effects of fasting on performance. The limited intake of carbohydrates, protein, and fluid during fasting days sometimes affects their bodies’ ability to recover from exercise. Some found that their cognitive performance suffered as well due to the effects of even mild dehydration and inadequate carbohydrate intake. Exercise that is both physically and mentally challenging and long-lasting could have even greater negative effects.
Intermittent fasting may be unrealistic for long-term use. Reducing your overall caloric intake and a regular exercise program are the best combination for weight loss.
The holiday season is in full swing, which means an abundance of family feasts and holiday parties. But you can keep your nutrition in check and still eat balanced meals and snacks by practicing “mindful eating,” a form of mindfulness.
Mindful eating allows you to embrace food, nourish your body, and feel satisfied without overindulging. It means being more aware of your eating habits, eating cues, and sensations. When you eat mindfully, you learn to savor every aspect of your meal with all of your senses and become more conscious of your feelings of fullness. And while mindful eating isn’t a diet, it has been found to help with portion control and weight loss.
Try these mindful eating exercises before, during, and after your holiday get-togethers:
1) Recognize your feelings of hunger and fullness. Try to understand the reason you want to eat. Is it true physical hunger? Or do you tend to eat when your emotions are running high, such as when you’re stressed? Perhaps you saw or smelled something delicious, and all of a sudden your stomach is rumbling. Eat when you’re hungry. Don’t skip a meal just because you have a holiday party later in the day. If you wait until you’re starving, you might end up eating more than two meals’ worth. After you’ve had your first helping of food, wait about 10–20 minutes to determine if you’re still hungry or if you feel satisfied.
2) Savor your food. You can have your pumpkin pie and eat it too. Even calorie-rich foods can be eaten mindfully. First choose a sensible portion size. Then eat slowly, chew your food thoroughly, and put your fork down between each bite. Enjoy every taste, texture, smell, and sight of your food. Mindful eating also teaches us not to be judgmental about our food choices—there is no right or wrong way to eat!
3) Anticipate distractions and come prepared. People tend to eat more during social gatherings because there are more distractions and a greater number of food options. Be mindful of how your food choices nourish your body and support your health and well-being.
You can achieve healthy holidays by sticking to your eating plan and enjoying it too. All you have to do is retrain your brain!
There are various types of vegetarian diets, all of which exclude meat, while some also exclude fish, poultry, and other animal products. Although fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, many of them are short on certain nutrients (such as protein). Being a vegetarian in the military can be challenging, but with proper planning—beginning with the right information from HPRC’s "Vegetarian diets - the basics"—a vegetarian diet can meet all of your nutritional needs.
Not only can plant-based diets be nutritionally complete, they also tend to be high in fiber and low in calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Thus, vegetarian diets offer a wealth of health benefits, including decreased risk for diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. As an added bonus, many vegetarian food options are considered “Green” foods under the Go for Green® program, which means you can eat these foods at every meal. Just be mindful of the amount of canned, fried, or dried (with added sugars) items you choose.