Filed under: Diet
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.
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.
Food and color additives exist in many of the foods that we eat. They are used to improve safety and freshness, maintain the nutritional value of foods, and improve texture and appearance. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has put together a helpful brochure reviewing how additives are approved for foods, types of food ingredients, and a description of food and color additives.
Many of us have seen foods labeled as organic, but most people don’t know what that means. In order to be considered organic, foods must be certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and meet certain standards. Generally, organic foods must be produced without the use of any artificial fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, sewage sludge, or genetically modified organisms. As a result, organic foods have become quite popular.
Because of the differences in production, organic foods tend to be more expensive than conventional foods. For example, the average price of a gallon of regular milk is $2.89, but the average price of a gallon of organic milk is $5.99. That’s more than double the cost, which may not be affordable for many people. For military families who prefer to buy organic foods, discounted prices may be available at their local commissary. Ask grocery stores and wholesale stores about military discounts and coupons. For those who qualify, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) allows organic fruits and vegetables to be purchased with cash-value vouchers. The eligibility of other foods is state-dependent, and each state’s approved food list can be found on USDA's WIC page.
The price difference between organic and conventional foods is clear, but the benefits of choosing organic are not as obvious. Organic foods are thought to be better for the environment and our bodies. However, from a nutritional standpoint, there is not enough evidence to suggest a clear benefit to purchasing organic foods over conventional foods. If pesticides are your concern, visit the Environmental Working Group website to learn more.
So, the next time you’re trying to decide between organic and non-organic, remember that nutritional differences don’t need to be a major factor in your decision because there don’t appear to be any. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is beneficial no matter which option you choose.
For more information on organic foods, check out USDA's website.
For some people, eating certain foods can cause serious allergic reactions, even death! The most common food allergens are milk, eggs, fish and shellfish, tree nuts (such as almonds, walnuts, and pecans), peanuts, wheat, and soy. Other food allergies are possible, so it’s important to read food labels for ingredient information if you are at risk. Click here for more information.
School has started, and the scramble to come up with interesting and appealing lunches for your children probably has, too. If you find you’re bored with the “ham sandwich, apple, and a cookie” routine shortly after the first bell, imagine how bored your child’s taste buds will be in a few weeks! Keeping your child interested in healthy eating is as easy as ABC (and D).
Adventure: Offer your child some variety. Choose high-fiber, whole-grain tortillas or breads for sandwiches and opt for tasty spreads such as salsa, hummus, or pesto for extra flavor. Lean roasted meats such as chicken or turkey are healthy, lean sources of protein; or try fat-free refried beans for an appealing vegetarian option. Tuck some lettuce and tomatoes in for fun, flavor, and nutrients. (Keep wraps and bread from getting soggy by wrapping veggies in meat slices.) Your child doesn’t care for the taste of whole-wheat breads? No problem. Whole-grain white-flour wraps and breads offer lots of fiber but have the taste and look of traditional white-flour choices.
Butters: If nuts aren’t off limits at your child’s school, try something different than the typical peanut butter and jelly: Almond or hazelnut butter topped with fresh fruit such as bananas or mango slices, or fruit spreads such as marmalade or apple butter. Nut butters are great sources of protein with healthy fats and don’t require refrigeration—a plus if cold storage isn’t available.
Cut-ups: Cut up fresh fruits and vegetables the night before and add some to your child’s lunchbox. Cantaloupe pieces, pineapple chunks, and kiwi slices are popular with kids and full of vitamins and other nutrients. Toss in some cauliflower or broccoli florets with a side of pre-packaged dip or salsa. If you’re short on time, pre-cut fruits and veggies are available from your local grocer, but they may be more expensive.
Dessert: Oatmeal cookies, dried fruit, or low-fat yogurt (if kept at 40ºF or less) are terrific, healthy choices.
Let your child dictate just how adventurous his or her lunchtime options should be—they might surprise you! For more great lunchtime ideas, the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge Cookbook features 54 kid-friendly recipes. And remember: Safety first! Keep lunchboxes clean and cool (store in the refrigerator overnight) and provide a moist, cleansing towelette in your child’s lunchbox so he or she can wash up before eating.
Vitamin D is actually a hormone that your body produces when your skin is exposed to sunlight, earning it the nickname “sunshine vitamin.” It plays key roles in reducing your risk of many health conditions, including depression, cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and others. Spending 10 to 15 minutes outside on a sunny day with your arms and legs uncovered can provide nearly all the vitamin D most people need—challenging when you’re wearing a long-sleeved uniform or working inside all day—but you can also get some vitamin D in your diet from fatty fish (such as salmon), mushrooms, and many fortified foods.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance for most individuals is 600 IUs. People who have a vitamin D deficiency or certain medical conditions might require supplemental vitamin D but only under the supervision of their healthcare provider. That’s because excess vitamin D can be stored in your body, putting you at risk for toxicity. Over time, too much vitamin D can lead to irregular heart rhythms, kidney damage, and other serious health problems. If you take large doses of supplemental vitamin D and eat foods that are fortified with it, you could easily obtain more than recommended amounts.
Despite the risk for toxicity, nearly one-fourth of people living in the U.S. have low vitamin D levels, so all adults and children should have their vitamin D status checked by their healthcare provider. For more information about vitamin D, read this fact sheet from the Office of Dietary Supplements.
Olive oil is known for its flavor, versatility, and health-promoting qualities. Nutrition experts think olive oil may be partly responsible for the many health benefits associated with the “Mediterranean diet,” an eating pattern that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and “healthy” fats. Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat—one of the healthy fats. It contains vitamins A, E, and K, plus many other beneficial compounds that might reduce your risk of heart disease.
Heating olive oil or holding it at high temperatures for long periods of time can reduce its beneficial qualities. If you use olive oil for deep-frying, it should be discarded after one or two uses.
Interestingly, olives can “pick up” airborne toxins present in smoke from fires, car exhaust, and other pollutants. So it might be a good idea to choose olive oils produced from olives grown in areas where air quality is good most of the growing season. This is likely true for all edible oils.
Olive oil can be used in countless ways: Drizzle on pasta or bread, brush lightly on meats or fish, coat vegetables for roasting, or use nearly any way that butter or other fats can be used—even baking! Of course, as with all fats, be sure to use olive oil in moderation to avoid gaining weight.
Wheat products such as bread and pasta are mainstays of our diets. However, some people are sensitive to gluten, a blend of two proteins found in wheat and other grains such as rye and barley. Three distinct conditions caused by gluten sensitivities have been identified: wheat allergy, celiac disease, and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Wheat allergy is more common in children than adults, and many children outgrow the condition. Symptoms include hives, itchy throat or eyes, and difficulty breathing. Wheat allergy can be life threatening and requires immediate medical attention—an especially serious consideration for Warfighters in the field.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects the small intestine. When a person with celiac disease eats foods containing gluten, his/her immune system attacks the small intestine, impairing the way the body digests food. Symptoms include bloating, gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain, lactose intolerance, and anemia. If not treated, celiac disease can cause neurological disorders, osteoporosis, and other autoimmune disorders such as type 1 diabetes. About three million people in the U.S. have celiac disease.
In non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or NCGS, a person is sensitive to gluten but—as the name suggests—does not have celiac disease. Symptoms include diarrhea or abdominal pain and vague, non-intestinal symptoms such as bone or joint pain, leg numbness, or skin rashes, making diagnosis difficult. About 18 million people in the U.S. have NCGS.
The only way to treat gluten sensitivities is to adhere to a strict gluten-free diet. Things to avoid include:
- Wheat, rye, and barley
- Flours made from wheat: self-rising flour, graham flour, cake flour, pastry flour
- Oats, unless certified gluten-free
- Communion wafers and matzo
- Soy sauce
Even if a product label says it is “wheat free” it might contain rye or barley. FDA has established guidelines for labeling gluten-free foods.
Gluten-free foods can become “contaminated” with gluten in home kitchens, so be sure to use clean tools for preparing and serving gluten-free foods, and designate appliances, such as a toaster, for use with gluten-free products only.
Many people with gluten sensitivities are deficient in calcium, folate, iron, and certain B vitamins. They should have their vitamin and mineral status monitored by a doctor.
Although following a gluten-free diet can be challenging at first, with a little practice it can become second nature. There are many gluten-free products on the market and many bakeries now offer gluten free selections. People who follow the diet typically experience significant improvements in their health and quality of life that make the effort worth the challenges. You can learn more about celiac disease and gluten-free diets from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
If there’s one constant in the military lifestyle it’s change. You could be engaged in a high-intensity ops tempo one day, and then find yourself at a desk job the next day (and vice versa). Similarly, you could be training for a triathlon, and then suddenly recovering from an injury. When your circumstances change, your calorie needs change too.
The Go for Green® plan is based on a Warfighter consuming 2,500 calories per day. Your needs might be different depending on a number of factors such as your age, sex, and level of activity. Go for Green® can help you choose appropriate foods for your calorie needs. But first, find out how many calories you need each day with this handy (downloadable, Excel) calculator from HPRC.
If your needs are greater than 2,500 calories per day—perhaps your job or workout regimen is very physically demanding—eating a few “yellow” foods (especially from the protein, fruit, and starchy food categories) and one or two “red” foods each day is appropriate for you. “Yellow” and “red” foods help boost the calorie content of your meals and restore your body’s carbohydrate and fat stores—essential fuels for Warfighters with high-calorie needs.
If your needs are less than 2,500 calories per day—maybe because you sit at a desk all day or you’re nursing an injury—it’s important to remember that reduced physical activity means reduced calorie needs. Steer clear of “red” foods and keep “yellow” ones to a minimum. Aim for plenty of “green” foods to help you heal and enhance mental and physical performance, and be sure to watch your portions to avoid unwanted weight gain.
And remember, “Green” foods are always a good choice for optimal performance, whatever your circumstances or calorie needs! For more information, visit the Warfighter section of the Go for Green® website and click on the “Personalizing G4G” tab.