Despite the long standing scientific belief that may be feeding our excuse generators
I recall, years ago, reading an article about the theory that we all have a “bank” of willpower that we draw from to get us through tempting situations each day, and for that reason must forgive ourselves when our bank account runs empty. What a great reinforcement for not trying harder to tap into the deeper well of will that is in us all. The bank theory is no longer the accepted one, leaving us with the challenge of explaining how we tap into our will in a way that can be understood and utilized as a tool. Not an easy thing to do when it comes to the complicated mechanics of the mind. My favourite description of it comes from a professor at the University of Toronto, and premier source for all things about the science of ego depletion (aka lack of self control), Michael Inzlicht. He describes self control as being more like an emotion. This, to me, is a relatable description because we can all understand what it feels like to sometimes wear out our ability to keep other emotions in check, like sadness, anger or maybe even happiness if we’re lucky. From his lab studies Professor Inzlicht hypothesis that “self-control is thought to wane over time not because people are unable to control themselves, but because they are unwilling to control themselves.” I liken this to pretending to be in a good mood when we’re really not, and eventually just becoming sick of the act and snapping at someone, he states that “Self-control performance is thus a product of motivation, not capacity.”
This subject particularly interests me because it is often the primary challenge for people wanting to improve their nutrition but lacking the motivation – or willpower – to maintaining dietary changes. They are eager at first but after a period of time being denied some of their favourite foods, they simply become sick of eating in a way that doesn’t satisfy them so they lose motivation and often give up entirely. Many simply dismiss this as being out of their control and they just simply couldn’t keep it up any more. The reality is they were just not willing to dig deeper to stick it out.
I feel like it’s helpful for people to know and understand this because these things often feel so out of our control when really that isn’t the case. It’s completely within our control and requires us to stay focused, be patient and work a little harder to not lose momentum. If we believe that we’ve depleted our willpower resources then we don’t even try to withdraw from the bank anymore. But if we know it’s always there and we just have to work a little harder to make a withdrawal, maybe that will be enough to keep us going.
While past research always focused on how we manage our self control as if it were a resource, now the focus is on how we manage it as a skill. Studies often discover that those who are best at exercising it have strategies. So when some of us look at a cupcake and imagine how delicious it tastes, then just can’t resist experiencing it, those who can resist it do so by imagining the negative consequences on their waistline, or imagining that it tastes like dirt, or some little mind trick that gets them through the moment unscathed. So it requires a little planning ahead. We need to know about ourselves that we are tempted by cupcakes, plan our strategy for how to react when we might see them, and learn to employ that strategy when we do. It’s just a new skill to learn and we’re all capable learning when we try.
It’s also worth pointing out that, when it comes to things like weight loss and obesity, there are also other factors at play such as genetics and environment, so when we do work hard to learn those new skills and they don’t seem to work, it’s time to employ the skills of a professional to help us develop that strategy.
It can be very good for you but it might be very bad for you
photo by welcomia
In my work it's not enough to just rest on the knowledge I gained from school. I have to constantly stay on top of new research because something I learned that was thought to be a solid truth can quickly turn into the opposite. I need to know that the advice I give will do no harm, which means ensuring that it is still advice that's based on the most current and accepted data. Supplements are a bit of a grey area for me because it's very hard to know what's really inside that little capsule. I worry about how it was cultivated, the quality of the ingredients, how it was processed, how long ago it was processed, and how the package has been handled since it was made. All these factors can affect the efficacy of a supplement, and in some cases its safety.
All of this is why I rely primarily on whole foods in my client recommendations. That said, supplementation can still be important for some people and I generally have a few favoured ones that are helpful for many of my clients. One that I often recommend is omega-3 fatty acid in the form of fish oil. Long considered one of the best and most absorbable forms of EPA and DHA, fish oil is an excellent way to lower blood pressure, prevent heart disease and is important for brain health, among many other benefits. I've always known that the quality of the fish oil is important as it can become oxidized very easily and this can have an adverse impact on health. So I'm very concerned about a study from early last year that tested the top 3 supplements in the US and found that all had some levels of oxidized lipids, in some cases very high levels. The cited research that tested other products from around the world, often with similar results. What's worrisome about this is that ingesting some of these supplements can actually lead to increased cardiovascular risk in people with coronary disease. Read the full study here that includes links to other cited research. There's also a fantastic reference guide on the Labdoor website that examined 54 different fish oil supplements and ranks them based on several parameters of efficacy, safety, nutritional value, etc. Until I've done a little more research on my own, I'm going to stick with my usual recommendation: just eat more fish.
On that note, what is the best fish to eat? Salmon is one of the highest in omega-3 and one of the most popular. Wild varieties like sockeye, coho, and chinook are best. Always avoid farmed. Atlantic mackerel and herring are also both very high in omega-3. Albacore tuna is high in it as well but I generally don't recommend it because it also has a high mercury content. The source for fish is as important as its nutritional value so always refer to the Ocean Wise Guide before making any choices at the store or in restaurants.
Looking for some good fish recipes? I posted a couple recently that are salmon based but easy to swap out with any of the fish from the guide above:
As with most of the recipes I post, this is easy to adapt. You can swap the salmon for a white fish like halibut or black cod and it will be equally tasty. The benefit of the salmon is that it's very high in omega-3 fatty acids so if you're looking for a brain boost or a reduction in blood pressure, this is the fish for you. The spices are full of flavour but not hot so safe for those with sensitive stomachs (or taste buds). The asparagus in this dish provides inulin, a type of fibre that nourishes the healthy bacteria in your digestive tract, it's loaded with antioxidants and is also a mild diuretic, making it supportive for high blood pressure as well. The yogurt offers its own probiotic boost for digestion, and the mint is a helpful digestive aid. All in all this meal is easy to digest, which means you have the best chance of absorbing all the wonderful nutrients in these foods. This is a very low carb dish which means some of you may not find it filling enough, or will need to add some additional carbohydrate for good blood sugar management. The perfect accompaniment would be a scoop of brown rice or quinoa cooked in a little vegetable broth.
takes: 20 minutes
2 bunches asparagus
1 tablespoon garam masala spice mix*
2 salmon fillets
8 tablespoons Greek yogurt**
1 bunch mint, leaves picked
2 tablespoons avocado oil, divided
Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a pan on medium heat. Trimasparagus / beans and sauté for 2 minutes or until tender. Set aside
Combine the rest of the oil with the garam masala and a good pinch ofsalt to make a spicy oil. Pat salmon dry with paper towel and toss in the oilto coat.
Return the frying pan to a medium high heat. Cook salmon for 3-4 minuteson each side or until cooked to your liking.
While the salmon is cooking finely chop most of the mint, saving somewhole leaves to garnish. Stir the chopped mint into the yoghurt.
To serve, spread minty yoghurt on two dinner plates. Top with salmon,asparagus and reserved mint leaves.
* if you don't or can't find garam masala try curry powder or just use 1 teaspoon each of ground cumin, coriander and smoked paprika.
Unless you're a doctor, scientist, or happen to remember your basic biology from high school, you may not have magnesium in the forefront of your mind, but there's a good chance your body is struggling over it daily because it doesn't have enough. If you do remember your biology 101, you'll know that it's a crucial factor in over 300 biochemical functions in the body, such as regulating heartbeat rhythms, helping neurotransmitter functions, and ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the main source of energy for our cells, must be bound to a magnesium ion in order to be biologically active. All pretty important stuff, it's no wonder we're so easily using it all up, but why are we all running so low? There are several reasons:
Our Food Doesn't Have Enough
Most of the magnesium in our diet comes from plants. Plants get it from the soil. The problem arises when the soil itself becomes deficient. Modern day farming relies on mono-crops, combine harvesting and fertilization because profit is more important than feeding people healthy food. Mono-crops create a problem because it's crop rotation that remineralizes soil, one type of plant adds to the soil what another needs, and vice versa. Combine harvesting is a problem because the fields are stripped clean at harvest time, whereas with traditional farming anything that wasn't considered edible was left behind to compost and feed the soil. And fertilization is an issue because large scale fertilization typically only includes nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, the bare minimum to insure the plants grow. With no magnesium (not to mention plenty of other nutrients) being added to the soil, the levels in the plants eventually drop as well.
We Use It Up Quickly
Between plants that are themselves deficient, and the fact that many of us don't eat as many plants as we should every day anyway, we use up what little we're getting in short order. One of the important functions mentioned above that magnesium is involved in is the production of ATP - energy in our body. When we exercise, or even just sweat a lot, we burn through a lot of magnesium. Travel also depletes it, with things like stress, poor diet, poor air quality and air pressure changes all using up extra magnesium. Do you toss back a few more than usual when you're on vacation? Alcohol consumption depletes magnesium as well. So basically all the fun stuff.
How Do You Know You're Low?
There are a few signs that are pretty obvious and mean you are at the point where supplementation is required. Muscle cramps, excessive stiffness after exercising, constipation, insomnia and anxiousness are the big ones. Immediate supplementation will generally alleviate some of these symptoms quickly. So how much to take? The general recommendation is 6 mg per kg or 2.2 pounds of body weight. Using this standard, a 150-pound person would need about 410 mg. Many authorities feel that the RDA should be increased by about 50%, to about 600 to 700 mg daily. An average diet usually supplies about 120 mg of magnesium per 1,000 calories, for an estimated daily intake of about 250 mg. However, most people don't have the digestive abilities to absorb all of it, so levels will still be low. It will come in many forms on the store shelf, with each having different particular benefits, but the most absorbable will be magnesium glycinate. A good calcium-magnesium blend is usually a good idea as these minerals works synergistically in the body.
As always, the best way to get this mineral is through food. Here are some of the top sources of magnesium:
Spinach, cooked — 1 cup: 157 mg (39% DV)
Swiss chard, cooked — 1 cup: 150 mg (38% DV)
Dark Chocolate — 1 square: 95 mg (24% DV)
Pumpkin seeds, dried — 1/8 cup: 92 mg (23% DV)
Almonds — 1 ounce: 75 mg (19% DV)
Black beans — 1/2 cup: 60 mg (15% DV)
Avocado — 1 medium: 58 mg (15% DV)
Figs, dried — 1/2 cup: 50 mg (13% DV)
Yogurt or kefir — 1 cup: 46.5 mg (12% DV)
Banana — 1 medium: 32 mg (8% DV)
Here is a nice little recipe for a black bean protein bowl that combines a few of those things, along with sweet potato - also a good source of magnesium - and if you add a few almonds and finish off with a little square of dark chocolate for dessert, you've achieved your daily requirement for magnesium in one meal. Thanks to Quite Good Food in New Zealand for the recipe. Love those kiwis!
My default is to always make meals as simple as I can while still making them flavourful. That way if I don't have a lot of time (or am just feeling lazy) the base flavour is relatively the same as when I have more time and can add a little something extra. This salad is the perfect example. You can build layers of flavour with just a few simple ingredients but then notch it up a level with a few more. You can make a light but satisfying meal on a hot summer evening or a hearty but bright meal on a gloomy day.
The basic flavours consist of salmon, avocado, mango, cilantro, lime and garlic. From there you can add spice with how you cook the salmon, change up the herbs, add heartiness by adding brown rice, and even more so by adding some black beans. I found a version of this on Taster that's very similar to what I make and very tasty. Here's my basic version to start with.
1 large or 2 small filets of wild salmon
1 avocado, sliced
1 mango, sliced
1 cup diced cucumber
4 cups greens such as spring mix, spinach, arugula or watercress, washed and chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1/4 teaspoon dried cumin
1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
Heat oven to 350° F
Whisk together the olive oil, garlic, lime juice and zest, cumin and salt, add the cilantro and set aside to allow the flavours to mingle.
Sprinkle salt and pepper on the salmon and cook one of two ways: on a sheet pan exposed or wrapped in parchment. I like the latter because it seals in the moisture and make the house stink less, but it doesn't get a nice brown crust on it, so you have to decide what your priorities are on that one. Place in the centre of the oven and bake for 20-30 minutes depending on the size of the filet. Set aside to cool when finished.
Add your greens to a plate or large bowl and, if you'd like a heartier salad, add a scoop of brown rice and/or black beans. Top with the avocado, mango, cucumber and fish, then pour the dressing over the entire production.
Different fish: any fish works great here - halibut, cod, trout, and prawns or scallops are also delicious here
Vegan: swap the fish for smoked tofu cubes, baked tempeh, or just go with the black beans
Different herb: basil and mint also work well here. Mix a bunch of herbs together for even better flavour.
Feeling worse after a vacation is not the desired effect.
Here are some tips for better health during and after your trip.
One of the worst things you can do while traveling is to eat while traveling. While you're in transit that is, whether you're flying, driving, or however you're getting to your destination. The foods in airports, on planes, trains, and in roadside stops are all designed to make unhealthy food taste better or, in the case of airlines, to make food taste better at high altitudes, usually in the form of excess sugar, salt, and fat. It may seem like a necessary evil when you just need to get something in your stomach, but it might haunt you later - especially if you're on a long-haul trip and several meals will be involved. There are already other factors at play including how your body deals with motion, vibration, engine noise and altitude, along with dehydration, stress, mineral loss and poor digestion that deplete your energy and resources. Add an unhealthy meal to the mix and you're throwing gas on the fire. Here are a few simple tips for planning ahead so you can enjoy your vacation and not be a digestive wreck by the time you get home.
Plan ahead about what food you're going to pack. For international travel there are generally very specific rules about different food products with every country. Some are very strict and will not allow many food products, confiscating them on arrival. Even some US states don't allow products from other states. And some countries are beyond strict, administering heavy fines and penalties to anyone attempting to bring in certain products without full disclosure. Most countries should have a government customs and border patrol page that lists allowable items that you can reference before you travel. Be sure to do this as close to your departure as possible as these rules can change regularly. Many common restrictions lie with fresh fruit and vegetables, meat products and honey.
One thing you may want to avoid on airplanes is coffee. It’s been reported by anonymous flight attendants that the coffee is made with less than pristine water and that the coffee pots are not cleaned regularly. This is just one more thing that can contribute to digestive upset while traveling so best to avoid it.
Ultimately, if you can tolerate a stretch without a full meal, your best bet is to have small amounts of healthy food to keep you going until you can find some healthier options at your destination. The following are some options that are easy to travel with and put together that have nutrients to keep you fuelled without the extras to bring you down.
Avocado – this is such a nice little travel snack because it doesn’t need to be refrigerated and you can do so many things with it. If you can’t bring a knife even a spoon will bust open an avocado if it's ripe enough. I like to pack an “everything” spice mix of granulated garlic + onion, salt and sesame seeds. I just sprinkle it on and enjoy with some crackers or just straight onto the avo. Even just plain salt is fine though, or get creative with your spices. Just pack only enough to use while you’re traveling in case there is a customs issue – and be sure the avocado itself is allowed too.
Cereal – muesli, granola or other healthy cereals are great to bring with you to avoid being stuck eating sugary kid's cereals on a plane or at a hotel. Bring small bowl or similar container, an empty water bottle and 2 tablespoons of vanilla protein powder in a separate pouch or right in the empty bottle if you will only be making one serving. Once on the plane get some water for your empty bottle, add the protein powder and shake it up to make your ‘milk'. Pour over the cereal and enjoy.
Chia Fresca – a great way to stay hydrated in transit and get some protein and fibre at the same time. If you're on a plane ask for some water with lemon or lime and mix in 1-2 tablespoons of chia seeds. After a few minutes it will thicken and the seeds will become suspended, then it’s ready to drink. Just stir a few times while you’re waiting so they don’t clump together. If you're on a road trip, pack a few limes and a knife (or precut them) and a travel mug so you can make as needed.
Whole Grain Bread or Crackers – if you are able to find some good whole grain, hearty bread or crackers these can be a great base to build a meal on. They will digest slower and leave you feeling more satisfied than the refined bread they serve in flight. Pack enough in your carry on for the duration of your flight and put the rest in your checked bag where it will stay nice and cool. Anything with added herb flavourings such as rosemary will taste a little better up at altitude as well.
Protein – if you're flying the TSA allows cheese, eggs and meat through security. Be sure there are no issues with customs that you may clear before you board your flight as some of these items may not be allowed. And be sure you consume them all during your flight if you'll be clearing customs after you land. Some good grass fed cheese will go great with your crackers or bread. Just be sure to slice before you pack since you won’t be able to bring a knife and there likely won’t be a very sharp one offered to you on board. There are lots of healthy meat jerky’s on the market now made with wild or grass-fed meats that don’t need to be kept cold. Hard boiled eggs still in their shell will be good for a few hours if you take them out right before you leave for the airport. TSA does allow freezer packs as long as they are still completely frozen when you go through security. If they have melted at all they will be taken away, so check your packs to see how long it takes for them to start to melt. The other option is to pack ice cubes in a sealed bag that you can empty out right before entering security.
Sandwiches – both the TSA and many customs rules allow for commercially packaged foods so if you have a good source for a healthy sandwich on whole grain bread with lots of filling, chances are it’ll be a better option than what’s on board. Just be sure it’s in sealed or well wrapped commercial packaging.
Protein Bars/Balls – high quality, organic protein bars or ‘bliss balls’ are good options for filling up, but watch the sugar content, they often have as much as a candy bar.
Dried Fruit – there are no limits for TSA but again check with customs. Generally there are lighter restrictions around dried versus fresh fruit. Dates are a great addition if you like to have something sweet. It will keep you from the temptations of the in-flight snacks and provides some extra fibre and digestive support as well.
Fresh Fruit – pack these carefully so they don’t get bruised before you can eat them. Things like greenish bananas (no brown spots), apples, citrus fruit, berries or cherries are good options that won’t require cutting. Just be sure they’re washed and ready to eat before you pack them. Again, make sure they are admissible if you’re traveling internationally.
Nuts – an excellent way to make your carry-on meal more filling and to avoid the temptation of in-flight snacks. All nuts are a great option. Avoid ones that are overly salty so you don’t get dehydrated.
Nut butter – you can only bring 3.4 ounces on a plane and it would be part of your carry-on liquids, but nice to have if you’re packing crackers or bread. For a road trip however, this is an easy source of protein that doesn't need to be refrigerated.
A few other tips to keep in mind: always stay hydrated to avoid many symptoms associated with jet lag. If you do end up with diarrhea avoid taking anti-diarrheal medications as this can then create the opposite problem of constipation. Instead be sure to avoid foods like meat or spices, eat lots of cooked vegetables, soup, rice, bananas and some good old white bread will often help slow things down. Digestive enzymes can often help prevent gas and bloating and can be taken between meals if those symptoms arise.
Vacations are often an excuse to eat what you want - a vacation from your 'diet' as well. This is not entirely unhealthy and, done within reason, can be a great way to have some fun. Just try to moderate your choices, pick the best quality options you can, and remember that too much junk food can potentially ruin your entire trip so think first about whether it's even worth it.
If you read the book Born To Run by Christopher McDougall you're already familiar with this drink. I'm pretty sure this book is to blame for the surge in popularity of chia seeds today (along with Vibram shoes). While in Mexico the writer was introduced to this beverage that the Tarahumara had been drinking for centuries. A simple drink that's refreshing and energizing and can be made in its most basic form anywhere, as long as you have the seeds and some water. It can also be dressed up to instagram-worthy status like the one pictured here. The reason it's an effective hydrator is that chia seeds release a jelly-like substance in water that holds moisture really well, releasing it slowly during digestion and keeping you well hydrated. Chia seeds are also nutrient dense. Just a couple of tablespoons contain roughly 10 grams of fibre, 4.5 grams of protein along with good amounts of calcium, magnesium and iron, all of which can get depleted when you travel. Add some lime, as the Tarahumara traditionally do, and you have an alkalizing, refreshing drink designed to keep you hydrated and energized for long distances. Chia seeds are easy to travel with so take a package with you everywhere. If you're on a plane, ask for some water and lemon or lime. If you're in car, bring a water bottle and mix as you go or make it ahead. From there you can add whatever else you like. Start with the base: mix 1-2 tablespoons of chia seeds with 8 or more ounces of water. The more chia seeds and the less water you use the more viscous it will be. Stir frequently for several minutes to prevent the seeds from forming a clump. They'll soon start to float, suspended throughout the water. At this point add sliced lime or other citrus fruit, sliced cucumber, mint, berries - whatever you like. Then sip and enjoy. If 'slimy' foods freak you out this may not be your thing, but at least give it a try. It will help keep you balanced, keep your digestion moving, keep you hydrated, and it's super easy to make.
A great foundation recipe - perfect as is but easy to customize
photo courtesy My New Roots
I stumbled across this recipe by My New Roots a few years ago and it ignited my love for a specific flavour combination: cilantro, lime and garlic. Since then I've made variations of this dish where the cilantro is more dominant, and I've taken it to other recipes as a sauce, marinade or spread. It's the foundation of chimichurri and many other classic sauces. This dish is vegetarian and great as it is but I've also made it with marinated fish, shellfish and beef, using the same sauce for the marinade. This recipe uses rice noodles which are quick and easy but it's great on brown rice too (my pref).
Flavour Bomb Greens n’ NoodlesServes 3-4
Brown rice noodles (approx. 125g for four servings)A few large handfuls mixed greens (Swiss chard, kale, spinach etc.)Dressing:2 Tbsp. tamari2 Tbsp. cold-pressed sesame oil (or olive)2 tsp. raw honey (or maple syrup)2 tsp. brown rice vinegarzest and juice of 1 lime1 clove garlic, minced1 Tbsp. fresh ginger root, minced2 spring onions, sliced½ red chili, minced
¼ cup mixed black and white sesame seeds¼ cup unsweetened desiccated coconut¼ cup cashews½ cup cilantro, chopped½ cup mint, chopped
In a small dish whisk dressing ingredients together, reserving a few slices of spring onion and chili for garnish. Season to taste. Set aside.Boil a pot of salted water, add noodles and cook according to package directions. Drain and rinse with cool water to halt cooking. Place noodles in a large bowl, pour half of the dressing over and toss well to coat. Add some mint and cilantro and toss.In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast sesame seeds until fragrant. Remove from heat and set aside. Repeat with cashews and coconut.Wash and greens and spin them dry. Remove any tough stalks, stack leaves, roll up and slice into thin ribbons. Add to a large bowl pour remaining dressing over, throw in some mint and cilantro (reserve some for garnish) and toss well to coat. Add dressed greens to dressed noodles.To serve, allow each person to take their desired amount of greens and noodles. Place small dishes of toppings around the table for garnish and be generous! The more herbs, nuts, seeds, etc the better this will taste. Go wild!
My clients are always waiting for that moment where I tell them how to start measuring their food. When it doesn't come they're so surprised to find out that they sometimes can eat as much as they want of recommended foods, and calorie counting is never part of the process.
It's always helpful for me to have an article by someone (usually some kind of doctor) that outlines my advice just perfectly, and lends another level of credibility to it. In this article Controlling the Body’s ‘Fat Thermometer’, Dr Jason Fung discusses the fallacy of counting calories (and the evil industries that perpetuate the practice) and he also gets into the biology of why it doesn't work and where things go wrong. It's about a 10 minute read and is a little dense, not so technical you won't understand, but maybe you should read it after your morning coffee.
Whether athletes can enhance their performance with caffeine may depend on their genes. Those of us that already do Nutrigenomix testing have known this for a while, but now it’s gaining wider awareness thanks to another level of exposure through new clinical studies and an article in the New York Times. Have a read and, if you’re someone that thinks caffeine enhances your performance, or you’re wondering if it could help, come talk to us. A little spit in a tube could change your whole game.