Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Cereal Aisle...duh duh dunnnn!

In the grocery stores in Canada, Monday is singles night. Guys and gals on the prowl peruse the aisles searching for groceries and the love of their life. Shoppers place a cereal box that describes their personality in the front of the cart. After reading this in the newspaper, I proceded to categorize friends and family as cereal. I became Raisin Bran for my seriousness and hard work (the bran) as well as my silly and spontaneous side (the raisins). One of my friends can be described as Rice Krispies for his constant whining but undeniable fun streak.

The cereal aisle can be overwhelming whether you are looking for a spouse or just breakfast. Stacks of brightly colored boxes grab your attention from every angle. Whatever it is that makes our final decision before placing the box in our grocery cart, it is time to make that an informed decision. There are many aspects to consider when picking your cereal; besides taste, it is important to look at the ingredients and the nutrition label. Try to avoid being convinced of health claims such as, "Can help lower cholesterol," "lose 10 pounds by replacing one meal a day with a bowl of cereal," or "made with whole grains." Health claims in general can be misleading and manufacturers are mostly just trying to sell their cereal.

Instead, turn the box around and focus on mainly two things: fiber and sugar. Cereal should have less than 8 grams of sugar per serving (which vary considerably from brand to brand and type to type) and should not be listed as one of the first three ingredients. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. Sugar may be disguised as corn syrup, honey, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice, dextrose, fructose, or other words ending in -ose. Sugar can be found listed under total carbohydrates, which are also of importance if you are counting carbs (for weight loss or blood sugar control).

Also listed under total carbohydrates is fiber. Now I have often been teased for my interest in fiber (I admit it is listed as a hobby of mine on Facebook) but I can not emphasize the importance of fiber enough when it comes to cereal. Cereal can be an excellent source of fiber and since we need 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day (depending on overall calorie needs), breakfast is a great time to start gettin' it in. Also, if a cereal is high in fiber, it is most likely made from whole grains. Whole grains to look for might include whole oats, barley, rye, buckwheat, amaranth, corn, and anything followed by the word "bran." Fiber will (1) keep blood sugars regular by slowing the digestion of carbohydrates to sugar down, (2) keep "everything else" regular by creating bulk from indigestible material, and (3) keep us full longer by the above mechanisms. Search for a cereal with at least 5 grams fiber per serving.

To give you some direction, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has rated a plethora of cereals based on their nutritional value as well as taste. If you have never read their reviews, written bi-monthly in the Nutrition Action Healthletter, you are surely missing out. Although a bit outdated (April 2006) considering their are new cereals offered all the time, this should give you a good start, get you oriented to the cereal aisle, and help you meet NAN. In summary, their top picks include:
  • General Mills Fiber One Honey Clusters (a uber-fibered version of Honey Bunches of Oats)
  • Kashi Good Friends (Kashi in general does pretty well when it comes to whole grains but double check ingredients, such as in Go Lean varieties, for soy protein isolates).
  • Post Spoon Size Shredded Wheat 'n Bran
  • Weetabix Organic Crispy Flakes & Fiber
  • Kellogg's All Bran, Bran Buds and Original
  • Post 100% Bran (Try adding your own sweetness with Truvia, an herbal sweetener without calories and chemical drawbacks).
Post your favorite cereals as comments. I am personally eating a lot of oatmeal and gluten free Mesa Sunrise these days. I add flax seed and some nuts for a little added fiber and frozen fruit for extra vitamins. Don't forget to add a source of protein when sitting down for breakfast!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What to Eat

Driving home from Baltimore to Chicago, I had many hours to kill, or catch up on reading, depending on how you look at it. I dove in to my borrowed copy of What to Eat, written by professor of nutrition at NYU. As a food and nutrition professional, Marion Nestle helps us decifer food culture. She does her best to peel away the layers of politics and marketing mayhem to walk the average consumer through the aisles of the grocery store understanding the nutritional difference between butter and margarine, the biochemistry of high-fructose corn syrup, and the secrets of selling processed foods by adding health claims to the boxes.

Key concepts to walk away with:
  • Organic ¹ healthy - candy is candy whether the sugar is organic or not. Eat organic meat and dairy to avoid extra hormones and antibiotics. Choose organic produce for conventional fruits and vegetables that require high loads of pesticides.

  • Most cereal sends our body into a hyper insulin mania. Added vitamins and minerals do not compensate for the sugar rush, which will inherently cause weight gain. When glucose is not stored as glycogen (because the muscles and liver are already concentrated), the excess sugar is stored as fat. Choose cereals high in fiber, made with whole grains such as oats, bran, buckwheat, barley and amaranth, avoid sugar words in the ingredients especially if it is listed high in the list (a.k.a. honey, high fructose corn syrup, beet sugar, cane sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup solids, sucrose, fructose, dextrose).

  • We get 9% of our calories from bread, so choose wisely. The least amount of ingredients the better - bread does not need to be a science experiment. Go with a multi-grain high in fiber and with no added sugars or hydrogenated oils. Brands I recommend include Baker's, Vermont, French Meadow (especially their spelt or whole rye and yeast free varieties), Pepperidge Farm (some varieties), and Whole Foods and Trader Joe's whole grain varieties.

  • Margarine is made by making a liquid fat more solid by adding hydrogens to the fatty acid chain. This changes the shape of the fat from cis to trans, which basically means bending the fat and causing it to be more plastic. Think of a fat that can bend around the curves of your arteries; not too bad. Then we add hydrogens to that fat so that it will not go rancid, but in doing so, the fat can no longer slip around those curves. Instead we have clogged arteries, inflammation, and poor immunity when eating baked goods, crackers, and peanut butter made with partially hydrogenated oils. Read the ingredients; the FDA does not require food manufacturers to include trans fats in the food label if there is less than 0.5 grams per serving. Be weary of the serving size!
  • Limit soy products, especially highly processed soy. Research is not conclusive regarding the safety of soy. The studies showing the benefits - lowering cholesterol - are backed by manufacturers and other entities that benefit from soy sales. Other research demonstrates that the isoflavones in soy mimic estrogen (phytoestrogens) and may increase risks of prostate, breast, and uterine cancer in genetically sensitive individuals. Note: this may be a problem for men and women alike. If you do like soy, stick to tofu, edamame, miso, tempeh, or soy milk with limited processing. Avoid soy protein concentrates and soy protein isolates. To make these food ingredients, found in cereal, protein bars, powders, and veggie burgers, the soybean must be heated to such extreme temperatures that any benefits are destroyed. In general, high temps create problems; the same is true when heating fats or oils to high temperatures, such as in frying.

Trying to be a more conscientious grocery shopper? This book is for you. And because it is written by a noteworthy nutrition professional who did extensive research, it is a trusted source. You will also find that it is written with conversational tone with some science added in, but not too much that you need a chemistry degree to decipher (although I do have a chem degree so please post if this is not a true statement).

Friday, December 11, 2009

Does caffeine enhance athletic performance?

The fruit seed coffee beans are the mainstay of many countries economic sustainability. Furthermore, most people (52% of Americans including myself) depend on coffee for their energy daily. The popularity of caffeine is no foreign concept to athletes either. Most gu's and gels contain caffeine and I hear more and more people trying 5 Hour Energy Shots before competition and games, not to mention the $5.4 billion dollar industry of energy drinks. But is all this hype about caffeine hearsay, or is it worth downing a mug of joe before your next marathon?

Caffeine works similarly to other addictive drugs, say nicotine and cocaine, by blocking adenosine receptors. Caffeine crosses the blood-brain barrier and actually blocks blood flow by about 22-30%, thus blocking pain and decreasing feelings of fatigue. Metabolites of caffeine such as theobromine increase the amount of oxygen and blood flow to muscles and theopylline acts as a muscle relaxant that targets bronchioles (our lungs).

Caffeine's important mechanism of action as far as athletes are concerned comes with its ability to spare muscle glycogen. Glycogen is the stored form of glucose, our body's preferred source of fuel, in the liver and muscles. Experimental studies have not reached a consensus on this puzzle, but some point to caffeine elevating free fatty acids in the blood, thus allowing the body to use fatty acids as energy instead of carbohydrates. Caffeine also impacts the enzymes that break down glycogen, thus sparing the glycogen. Calcium release is necessary for muscle contraction, and since caffeine stimulates this release, it has a direct affect on muscle fatigue.

Caffeine's effects can be felt after 30 minutes of consumption and stay within the system for 4-6 hours. Actually, if you consume an afternoon latte, by bedtime only half of the caffeine has been metabolized and left your bloodstream. A good point to keep in mind if are interested in keep your sleeping habits regular, especially for training purposes. Although you may be able to fall asleep without problem, caffeine will interupt your sleep cycle and the quality of your sleep.

Overall, experts do claim caffeine consumption to be advantageous for athletic performance. Benefits are reached when more than 3 mg caffeine per kilogram body weight is consumed, with max benefits around 6 to 9 mg/kg body weight. For a point of reference, a 12 ounce mug (the size of a tall Starbucks beverage) of drip coffee contains about 200 mg caffeine. Generally speaking, gu's have 20-30 mg caffeine per packet.

Additionally, benefits of caffeine are noticed more when caffeine is consumed both before (no more than 60 minutes) and during activity, 4.3 ± 5.3% better actually. Studies also show that dehydration is not necessarily more worrisome with caffeine ingestion but that caffeine's benefits are better felt with water and carbohydrate consumption.

Caffeine still can benefit even us chronic users, but habitual caffeine drinkers will have more adenosine receptor sites, making caffeine's work a little more difficult. It may be best to abstain from caffeine up to seven days before the sporting event to feel the maximum effects the day of.

I actually participated in a study conducted by the University of Illinois that sought to determine the affects of caffeine on athletic performance. On two separate occasions, I ingested a pill - one caffeinated capsule and one placebo. There was a noticeable difference in my cycling effort. Although I am not a cyclist, I was able to exert myself to a much greater effort on the 2nd attempt. I can only assume this was after having the caffeinated capsule considering the results of the study showed that caffeine does in fact reduce leg muscle pain, allowing a greater cycling intensity because of blocked pain receptors. Titled "Effect of Caffeine on Leg-Muscle Pain During Intense Cycling Exercise," this study was published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism.

How bout those 5 Hour Energy drinks? Although they do not contain the sugar of most other energy drinks, they are mostly caffeine (~138 mg) with a megadose of B vitamins and some amino acids. Amino acids can enter the Krebs cycle, the second part of ATP production. B vitamins are necessary for the metabolism of carbohydrates and proteins, thus helping with the conversion of carbs to glucose, giving us more energy. Side effects of too much B6 include nerve and muscle damage


Judelson, DA, Armstrong, LE, Sokmen, B, Roti, MW, Casa, DJ, and Kellogg, MD. Effect of chronic caffeine intake on choice reaction time, mood, and visual vigilance. Physiol Behav 85: 629-634, 2005.

O'Connor, PJ, Motl, RW, Broglio, SP, and Ely, MR. Dose-dependent effect of caffeine on reducing leg muscle pain during cycling exercise is unrelated to systolic blood pressure. Pain 109: 291-298, 2004.

Ganio, Matthew S; Klau, Jennifer F; Casa, Douglas J; Armstrong, Lawrence E; Maresh, Carl M. Effect of Caffeine on Sport-Specific Endurance Performance: A Systematic Revie. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 23(1), 315-324, 2009.

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