Filed under: Diet
There’s an old adage you may have heard: “Eat after eight, put on weight.” And maybe you’ve experienced it first-hand: You noticed that eating those late night pizzas and ice cream really packed on the pounds. But was your weight gain due to timing or just the high calorie counts? According to research in the field of circadian rhythms (CRs)—the 24-hour cycle of your body’s biological, hormonal, and behavioral patterns—it seems that when you eat could be just as important to weight gain as what you eat.
Deep within your brain sits a small cluster of nerve cells—a “master clock” of sorts—that’s responsible for orchestrating your CRs. Each biological system in your body works on a different CR schedule, and the master clock keeps all the schedules in sync. For example, CRs influence your body’s production of the hormones that regulate hunger, as well as how your body uses and stores fats and sugar, ultimately influencing your body weight, performance, and overall health. Other hormones, such as the ones that tell you when you’re full, are switched on or off according to a variety of inputs.
The two greatest influences on how well your master clock is able to keep things in sync are light and food. Light tells your brain how much sleep you get (think: eyes closed, less light). Food (smell, taste, and consumption) tells your body to produce a myriad of chemicals. As a result, staying up late at night, working shifts, and eating at all hours of the day and night—whether voluntarily or due to the demands of overseas deployments, training demands, shift-work schedules, and even parenthood—can play havoc with your circadian rhythms.
In an interesting twist, not only do CRs influence hunger and body weight, but excess body fat and/or a high-fat diet may disrupt CRs. This can lead to further weight gain, culminating in a collection of health problems known as “metabolic syndrome.” In the U.S., regular loss of sleep closely parallels the occurrence of metabolic syndrome. In addition, researchers have found that people who sleep less or have poor-quality sleep are more likely to become obese.
What to do? Make a conscious effort to “normalize” your daily routines as much as possible to maintain regular mealtimes. Whether you choose to eat three regular-sized meals or four to six smaller meals a day, space them out through the daylight hours to take advantage of your body’s natural rhythms. Here are some suggestions to avoid eating late at night:
- Try to eat a balanced dinner at least two hours before you go to bed, and take a walk afterwards when possible.
- Sip on soothing herbal tea or flavored water (without sugar).
- Be aware that watching TV (especially food-related ads) can trigger your desire to eat.
- Sometimes it can help to create new nighttime rituals that don’t involve eating, such as light stretching or yoga, taking a warm bath, listening to soothing music, or reading (or listening to) a book.
But if you find yourself up late at night—whether it’s due to a hard day at work, regular shiftwork, or temporary shifts due to jet lag or an infant’s night feedings—resist the urge to snack out of boredom or to “keep your energy up.” Shift workers should pack or purchase a healthy meal to eat during their work hours—one that includes lean protein and complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Eat early in the shift if possible, so you’ll have the energy you need to think and move efficiently. Travelers and parents should look for healthy snacks that follow a similar pattern. And try to limit coffee, tea, and other sources of caffeine to just two to four servings a day.
Of course, eating is just one half of the CR equation. Getting enough sleep is important too, so read HPRC’s overview for great tips on how Warfighters can improve their sleep.
The Nutrition Facts panel on a food label can be a Warfighter’s best friend when trying to decide what to eat for optimal performance. That’s because it provides you all the information you need to compare the nutritional content and value of foods and make good choices for your health and performance.
The Nutrition Facts label answers these questions about a food:
- How big is a serving?
- How many calories does it have?
- Does it contain nutrients that I should get less (or more) of?
- How does it fit into my overall nutrition goals?
- What percentage of key nutrients does it provide?
For tips on how to use and understand the information on a Nutrition Facts label, check out this easy guide from the Food and Drug Administration. Although label reading can be challenging at first, with practice you’ll become an expert at using the Nutrition Facts label as a helpful tool for following a healthy, balanced diet.
Holiday parties provide opportunities to relax and enjoy good food and good times with family, friends, and colleagues. But they also can derail your weight and fitness goals. Buffet tables laden with calorie-rich treats and beverages can weaken the resolve of even the most committed folks. To keep yourself on track, remember these tips:
- Never go to a party hungry. Eat a protein-rich food before you go. Protein foods tell your brain that you’re satisfied and help you avoid overindulging. Low-fat milk or yogurt or a handful of nuts are great choices.
- Follow the MyPlate strategies for filling your party plate: Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables then fill the rest with whole grains and lean protein such as fish or chicken.
- Choose wine over fancy mixed drinks or beer, and be sure to drink in moderation: one drink for women and two drinks for men. Sip slowly to make your drink last through the evening.
- If it’s a potluck, you really are in luck. Offer to bring a healthy salad or entrée, and fill your plate with your own delicious creation.
- Don’t waste your calories (and taste buds) on desserts that you don’t absolutely love. Choose your favorite and then share it with a friend. You’ll eat slower while you and your friend chat, and cherish the moment as much as the sweet!
In a 1960s TV cartoon series, George Jetson of The Jetsons simply popped a pill when he wanted to eat. “Dinner in a pill” was promised as the food of the future. So why hasn’t technology delivered on its promise? Simply put, no dietary supplement can reproduce the aromas, flavors, textures, or nutritional value of oven-roasted turkey, crusty, fresh-baked bread, juicy ripe pineapple, fragrant hot tea, or any other wholesome, delicious, performance-enhancing real food or beverage. And substituting dietary supplements for real food won’t help performance either – check out our video here. So skip supplements—not meals. To learn more about how real foods should come before dietary supplements, check out HPRC’s article in Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS).
The phrase “Garbage in, garbage out” was coined first by computer experts back in the 1960s. Since then, the phrase has gained a wider usage—even to the world of performance nutrition. Providing your body with high-quality fuels and nutrients is crucial to optimizing your performance. Like the poorly fueled runner in HPRC’s video, you’re likely to find that a diet of high-fat or sugary foods and drinks (“garbage in”) produces less than optimal results (“garbage out”). Instead, choose wholesome foods such as lean meats and fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products, which provide high-quality fuels and nutrients.
Do you have a “snack drawer”? Most people do, whether it’s in their office desk, gym locker, backpack, or family minivan. Snacking can be an important part of a healthy lifestyle, preventing late-afternoon vending machine runs or mealtime overeating and providing crucial nutrients prior to workouts or missions. Snacking can also ambush otherwise healthy eating plans, so it’s important to choose snacks wisely.
Ideally, your snack drawer should be stocked with a variety of protein and carbohydrate snacks to meet your needs during the day. A healthy snack provides 100 to 300 calories, depending on your weight and activity level.
Opt for lean-protein choices such as water-packed tuna (the kind in packets fit easily into a backpack, briefcase, or purse), peanut butter, and dry-roasted nuts such as walnuts, almonds, or pistachios. If you have a fridge available, boiled eggs (up to one week) or single-serving cups of hummus, cottage cheese, or Greek-style yogurt are great choices.
Healthy-carbohydrate options include instant oatmeal or grits, whole-grain crackers, and dried fruit. Choices for the fridge include fresh fruit and veggies—a great way to get the recommended amounts you need each day.
Take advantage of snack time to add some hydration to your day. Water (flavored ones can make drinking water more appealing), milk, soymilk, and almond milk are great choices. Herbal teas provide a caffeine-free alternative. Of course, juicy fruits such as watermelon, oranges, and kiwis are terrific too.
Being prepared can help you make good choices the next time a snack attack hits. But don’t forget about food safety: Be sure to keep an eye on expiration dates and toss things when they’re past their prime. For more information about healthy snacking, read these informative tips from MedlinePlus.
Spices add flavor and color to many foods. But did you know they also might improve your performance while offering you protection from many diseases, including heart disease and cancer?
Your body’s cells continuously produce large quantities of what scientists call “free radicals”—highly reactive molecules that can damage cells. Ordinarily, your cells also produce antioxidants to neutralize these free radicals. But exercise, stress, and environmental pollutants can cause an imbalance between your body’s antioxidants and its free radicals. That’s where spices can come into play.
Not only do spices such as cinnamon, allspice, oregano, and turmeric (and others) demonstrate high antioxidant activity, scientists think they might actually help your body produce its own antioxidants. Some research suggests that eating spices as part of a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can prevent inflammation (a key player in the development of many diseases) and protect your body’s cells from damage caused by free radicals.
Get creative! Sprinkle a little cinnamon over your morning oatmeal, add a bit of allspice to a post-workout recovery shake, or stir some oregano or turmeric into your vegetable soup. A little bit goes a long way. Not only will you get a boost of flavor, you just might take a step toward better health and performance.
Food and health are hot topics these days. Just turn on the TV, pick up a magazine, or glance at the margins of your social networking site and you’ll hear and read about the supposed health benefits of dietary supplements containing this or that food component and the promises that they will “burn belly fat” or some similar claim.
Many of these promising food components belong to a group of compounds referred to as phytochemicals—chemicals produced by plants as a means of protecting the plants from various diseases.
Interestingly, when you eat plants (such as fruits and vegetables), the phytochemicals they contain might protect you from disease too. Researchers have found that people who eat a lot of fruits and vegetables have lower rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and many other diseases. Scientists haven’t discovered exactly how these compounds work to protect us, but they have discovered that they seem to have a synergistic effect. That is, the compounds seem to work better in combination, especially when they are supplied in their natural form—whole foods. Consuming isolated single compounds, as in dietary supplements, rarely has the same beneficial effect as eating the whole food. See these resources about fruits and vegetables and how they may impact your overall health.
Focusing on single nutrients (in pill form) is not only expensive, it just doesn’t offer the promise that a balanced, varied diet can. Focus on food, instead. For more information about the benefits of food versus dietary supplements, check out this OPSS brochure, “Nutrition: Fueled for Fitness.”
Nutrition experts at the Institute of Medicine—or IOM—of the National Academies of Sciences gather extensive information to make nutrition recommendations for the American public. One major result is known as the Dietary Reference Intakes, or (acronym number one) DRI. You might come across some of the DRI’s acronyms when reading how to fuel your body or considering a dietary supplement, so it’s helpful to know what they mean and where they came from.
The Estimated Average Requirements (acronym number two: EAR) are the average amount of nutrients that half of all healthy people need each day. EARs differ depending on life stage and gender. Remember, though, they’re simply an average. Scientists use statistics based on this average to calculate the Recommended Dietary Allowances (acronym number three: RDA).
The RDAs are the daily nutrient goals for essentially all healthy people, again based on life stage and gender. For example, the RDAs of some nutrients (such as vitamin C) for a 13-year-old boy are very different from those for a 25-year-old pregnant woman.
The Adequate Intakes (acronym number four: AI) are the—you guessed it—adequate daily amounts of nutrients that healthy people of a particular life stage or gender need. AIs are given when there isn’t enough scientific evidence for a stronger recommendation, that is, an RDA. For example, the IOM suggests an AI for one type of omega-3 fatty acids—alpha linoleic acid—of 1.6 grams per day for men and 1.1 grams per day for women because scientists just aren’t sure yet how much is optimal.
Tolerable Upper Intake Levels (fifth and final acronym, for now: UL) are the highest daily amounts of nutrients that you can consume without risk of toxicity. Many vitamins and minerals—even essential ones—can be toxic when consumed in excess. For example, because too much vitamin A can cause liver damage, a UL has been established for this essential nutrient.
So, if you remember nothing else, remember to get your RDAs and AIs every day, but don’t exceed the ULs!
The USDA Food and Nutrition Information Center provides links to the DRI Tables, but generally speaking you can meet all your daily nutrient intake goals (the RDAs and AIs) by following a healthy diet that includes lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. And be aware that recommendations do change. IOM reviews the most current nutrition science and updates the tables when necessary to keep up with the latest knowledge, which means better health for Warfighters and their families.
For optimal health and performance, Warfighters should try to eat at least six servings of vegetables (about three cups) every day. It’s tough, though, when you really don’t like vegetables. Here are some tips to help even die-hard veggie-haters work a few vegetables into their diets:
- Add vegetables to foods you already love! Macaroni and cheese, pizza, spaghetti sauce, soup, and omelets are great vehicles for spinach, broccoli, mushrooms, and other dreaded veggies. (Many of the vegetables in the MREs are hidden this way!)
- Grill your vegetables! Grilling adds those familiar flavors that we love so much. You can even baste them with your favorite low-fat marinade for extra flavor. Too cold to grill outside? Roasting vegetables in the oven makes many bitter-tasting vegetables taste sweeter.
- Drink up! You can find lots of tasty vegetable juices in grocery stores nowadays. Look for lower-sodium versions or the vegetable-fruit juice blends. You can even custom-blend your own by mixing bottled carrot juice with your favorite fruit juice.
- Get adventurous! Just because you hated something as a kid doesn’t mean you’ll feel the same way about it as an adult. Give vegetables another try—you might be surprised how tasty they really are.
Of course, these tips work for picky family members, too. How many vegetables should they eat? That depends—on their age, sex, and activity level. This chart from the USDA will guide you.