Filed under: Nutrition
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.
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.
The month of October is Military Health System’s Women’s Health Month. There are more than 350,000 female members of the military (16% of the total military force). While it’s important for all military members to consume nutritious diets, women have special nutrient needs: iron, folic acid, and calcium.
Iron. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency among women. Poor dietary intake of iron combined with intense physical activity can lead to fatigue, weakness, and pale skin—all signs of iron-deficiency anemia (IDA). Iron-rich foods include meat, poultry, fish, spinach, beans, and fortified cereals. Consume these foods with vitamin C–rich foods such as strawberries and oranges for better iron absorption. HPRC discusses other reasons for IDA in this article on “Iron deficiency.”
Folic acid. Women of childbearing age need enough folic acid to reduce the risk of birth defects. But even if you’re not pregnant, folic acid helps make blood cells that boost your immune system. Folic acid can be found in leafy green vegetables, beans, peas, and fortified cereals and bread.
Calcium. Compared to men, women are at greater risk for osteoporosis, in which bones become weak and are more likely to break. Women need to start getting more calcium at an early age to keep bones strong. Calcium-rich foods include low-fat dairy products, tofu, kale, and fortified cereals and juices. Vitamin D is also important to help the absorption of calcium. Read more about vitamin D in HPRC’s Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin.”
All of these nutrients can be found in supplement form, but as with any dietary supplement, consult your doctor first to determine if they are necessary and safe. For more information on supplements, read HPRC’s “Women's health and dietary supplements.” Remember, most people can achieve adequate intake of these nutrients with a balanced diet. Poor nutrition puts you at risk for injuries and makes it harder for you to perform at your best.
If you’d like to know more about women’s health, visit the Military Health System's web page.
Coconut water, the flavorful liquid found in young green coconuts, has become a popular drink. It is often promoted for a variety of ailments—from curing bad skin to resolving hangovers. But coconut water is also touted as a fluid replacement alternative. For this reason, some Warfighters choose coconut water over sports beverages because coconut water is “natural” and contains carbohydrates and key electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. However, not all brands of coconut water are created equal. In fact, they can vary considerably in terms of their nutrient content, so read product labels to be sure you’re getting the right amounts of nutrients you need for optimal performance. In addition, many kinds of coconut water contain fruit juice for flavor, which can increase the sugar and calorie content of the drink.
One of the biggest appeals of coconut water is its naturally high potassium content. While the potassium content is high, the amounts of carbohydrate and sodium in coconut water are sometimes very low, and individuals who participate in prolonged, vigorous exercise (longer than an hour) may need more carbohydrate and sodium for proper hydration. For more information about hydration needs, see HPRC’s infosheet on fluids and exercise.
For periods of exercise less than one hour, water is always your best choice—about 3–8 ounces every 15–20 minutes. But for longer periods of exercise, sports beverages are a good choice because they are specially formulated to replenish carbohydrate, sodium, and potassium lost during extended and/or vigorous physical activity. If you choose sports beverages, drink 3–8 ounces every 15–20 minutes to stay hydrated. Again, be sure to read the product label to make sure your drink has what you need, and nothing more. For more information about proper fueling, read An Athlete’s Guide to Nutrient Timing.
And what about that coconut water? There simply isn’t enough evidence to support the use of coconut water as a remedy for any condition. And although it’s a tasty beverage, know what’s in it so you can replenish what your body needs—no more, no less.
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.
Roughly one in three children in the United States is considered to be overweight or obese. Children who are obese are more likely to be obese as adults, which can put them at risk for diabetes and other health conditions. The month of September is devoted to raising awareness about childhood obesity, with a focus on prevention.
We Can!® (Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity & Nutrition) is a national movement sponsored by four National Institutes of Health organizations to help children from ages 8 to 13 remain at a healthy weight. The website has specific information and educational resources geared toward the individual, family, and organizations. See HPRC’s Family Nutrition resources for more information and this HPRC card for easy reminders. For more about the exercise aspect of overcoming obesity, check out the Family & Relationships article from earlier this month.
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.
Chia seeds have become a staple in many grocery stores, given their nutritional value and recent attention as recipe ingredients. But will consuming this seed cause a positive drug test? HPRC has a new OPSS FAQ to answer this question, plus other information about chia seeds and what to avoid.