Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Super Foods for a Strong Immune System During Cold and Flu Season

Photo credit: Chris Costes (Flickr)

I firmly believe that one of the first lines of defense against the cold and flu season starts in the grocery cart.  What are you putting in your cart lately?  While many of us are bombarded by a milieu of cold and flu-fighting products this time of year, there's nothing like heading into the season with a well-nourished immune system.  No, that doesn't mean popping megadoses of vitamin C or Airborne when you feel like you're getting a cold.  To bolster your immune system in preparation for the cold and flu season, it's essential to supply your body with a daily dose of the most vital immune-supporting nutrients.  The best source of these key nutrients is going to be food since these nutrients, along with others, will work together to help promote overall health and an optimally functioning immune system.  Here's my top 10 list of super foods for a strong immune system during the cold and flu season.                 

Fish:  Fish, such as salmon and tuna, are excellent sources of vitamin D, which helps regulate the immune system.  In fact, a few recently published studies suggest that vitamin D may play an important role in protecting individuals from viral infections, such as influenza.  While the body is capable of making vitamin D from sun exposure, many adults fall short during the colder months as they spend less time outdoors. There are also few foods that are good sources of vitamin D. Aim for at least two four-ounce servings of fish weekly.

Citrus fruits: Citrus fruits, such as oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines, are chock full of vitamin C, which helps the body resist infections in a variety of ways.  Toss sections of citrus into salad for a refreshing zing.  Citrus salsas pair well with fish, seafood, or chicken.

Sweet potatoes:  These luscious, orange-fleshed tubers are loaded with vitamin A, which keeps the linings of our eyes and intestinal and respiratory tracts healthy. These parts of the body provide one of our first lines of defense against bacteria and viruses by preventing their entry into the body. Sweet potatoes are also a significant source of vitamin C.  Sweet potatoes can be baked, steamed, or pureed, and they also work well in soups or casseroles.

Sunflower seeds:  These crunchy seeds are packed with vitamin E, which influences the cellular activity of the immune system.  Preliminary evidence proposes that vitamin E may enhance immune function in older adults. Sunflower seeds are also teeming with selenium, which plays a multifaceted role in shoring up our immune system.  One report presents evidence that selenium deficiency may even change the structure and function of the cells lining the respiratory tract, making selenium-deficient individuals more susceptible to viral infections.  Toss sunflower seeds into salads or sprinkle them on hot or cold cereals. These also work well in homemade trail mixes, granola, or granola bars.

Cruciferous vegetables: Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and cabbage, are filled with vitamin C.  Many of these veggies, such as broccoli, kale, and bok choy, also contain a bounty of vitamin A.  Some of these vegetables are often a welcome addition to any veggie platter or salad.  They also make nice additions to soups, stews, and casseroles.  Studies suggest consuming at least five servings a week.

Oats: This hardy grain provides an excellent plant-based source of zinc, which is a necessary link for the development and activation of the white blood cells of the immune system.  Researchers also pose that beta glucans found in oats may enhance the body's immune response by increasing its resistance to infections.  Oats are also a good source of selenium.  Enjoy oats for breakfast or even as a snack.  Incorporate oats into homemade granola, granola bars, or pancakes.        

Winter squash: Varieties of winter squash, such as butternut, acorn, spaghetti squash, and pumpkin, are heaping with immune-strengthening vitamin A and vitamin C.  In season from October through December, winter squashes are excellent when baked, sauteed, or steamed.  The cooked squash can be pureed and combined with seasonal herbs and spices.  They also work well in casseroles, soups, and mixed with grains, such as quinoa.
Bell peppers: Green, yellow, orange, or red sweet bell peppers all contain a favorable amount of vitamin C.  The red and orange varieties are also significant sources of vitamin A.  Enjoy them as a fresh, crunchy snack or tossed into salads.  These versatile veggies are also a nice addition to a variety of dishes from salsas to soups or serve them stuffed with other veggies, seasonings, and whole grains.

Dried beans:  Dried beans, such as black beans, navy beans, or pinto beans, are rich in plant-based iron, which is critical to the proper functioning of the immune system.  A deficiency in iron can lead to a suppressed immune system and increased risk for infections.  Consuming beans with vitamin C-rich foods will enhance the absorption of iron from the beans.  Beans are a perfect protein-packed component of salads, pasta or grain dishes, soups, chilis, and dips.  Aim for at least 3 cups a week.

Dark leafy green vegetables: Dark leafy green vegetables, such as spinach, kale, or bok choy, are brimming with immunoprotective vitamin A and C.  Some dark leafy greens, such as spinach, are also great plant-based sources of iron.  Pairing these veggies with vitamin C-rich foods will enhance iron absorption.  Dark leafy green vegetables can be prepared and served in a variety of ways, cooked or raw.  Explore and aim for at least 3 cups a week!

What are your favorite immune-boosting foods?

Here are some links to previous blog posts about common cold and flu remedies:

Friday, October 15, 2010

Foodie Friday: Black Bean Veggie Burger

 Photo credit: Michelle Loy. Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

I've had my fair share of veggie burgers in my life. However, I can't say that I've been very adventurous with my homemade veggie burgers.  Usually, they've consisted of a portabello mushroom with lots of other veggie toppings.  How's that for taking a walk on the wild vegetarian side?  It's not too bold at all, I know.  I must admit that it wasn't until recently that I realized that maybe, just maybe, I could make my own veggie that was more than just a portabello mushroom.  I stumbled upon this fabulously easy and versatile recipe for a veggie burger at 101 Cookbooks.  I've tried this version and others until I came upon my own favorite version, a black bean veggie burger.  What I love about this is that it is really easy to make, and it's a fantastic make-ahead food. When I make these for dinner, I have plenty leftover and they keep well in the fridge for lunches throughout the week.  They're tasty and filling, too.  Enjoy!

Black Bean Veggie Burger
Adapted from: 101 Cookbooks, 2007
2 1/2 c cooked black beans OR canned black beans, drained and thoroughly rinsed
4 eggs
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 c cilantro, chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
Zest of one lemon
1 c toasted whole-grain bread crumbs
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

  1. In a food processor, puree the black beans, eggs, and salt until the mixture is runny but textured.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the bean puree with the onion and cilantro.  Stir in the bread crumbs until well combined.  Allow the mixture to sit for a couple of minutes while the bread crumbs absorb some of the moisture. The mixture will thicken so that you can then divide it into about eight 1/2-inch thick patties.  (It's better for the mixture to be on the moist side as they will lose some moisture during cooking. If the mixture needs thickening, you can add small amounts of bread crumbs until thickened.  If the mixture is too thick and dry, you can also add more egg or water for moisture.)
  3. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat.  Place 2-3 patties into the skillet and cook until golden brown on each side, about 7 minutes each.  Set aside as you continue to cook the remaining patties.  
  4. For something different, you can carefully cut each patty in half and fill with toppings, such as avocado, tomatoes, sprouts, or lettuce, or simply serve them in a whole grain bun as you would a regular "burger".
*Note: You can also experiment with garbanzo beans or black lentils instead of black beans for this recipe.

Serves: 8
Nutritional Information:
Calories: 185   Carbohydrate: 25 g   Fat:  5 g   Protein: 10 g   Cholesterol:  106 mg   Fiber:  6 g   Sugar:  2.5 g  Sodium:  285 mg
Excellent source of: thiamin, riboflavin, folate, and vitamin A.
Good source of: omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, iron, magnesium, and zinc.           

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Help! I'm eating healthier foods, but I'm not losing weight.

Photo credit: catsper (Flickr)

First of all, if you're reading this because the post title hits close to home, then kudos to you!  I'm always excited to see people taking charge of their health by eating more nutritious foods.  Regardless of what the number on the scale says, this is one of the most amazing lifestyle changes you can make for yourself.  Your body thanks you for it, too!

I've definitely had clients ask why they're not losing weight even though they're eating healthier foods.  These individuals are often discouraged and frustrated, and I'm not surprised.  They've been working so hard to change their diet by eating more nutritious foods and, in many cases, increasing their physical activity.  However, the scale doesn't seem to be budging...or sometimes not as much as they'd hoped.  Based on my experience, one of the common reasons that individuals who are eating healthier and not losing weight is due to portion sizes or amounts.  

Years ago, I remember having a client who was vegetarian.  He was eating a wide variety of nutritious foods; however, he was frustrated because he was not losing weight.  We started reviewing his diet starting with breakfast. After he'd rattled off about 15 foods, I thought that he was done reporting what he typically eats in a full day. However, it turned out that the list was for breakfast alone.  The list included a variety of nutritious foods; however, there were a lot of them.  That was definitely a breakthrough finding for him.

Another client that I had was also eating more nutritious foods than he had in a long time; however, he wasn't seeing results on the scale.  Upon further investigation, I learned that he was eating at least 3-4 avocados a day.  While avocados are nutritious, they are much higher in calories than other fresh fruits.  The 3-4 avocados a day was the equivalent of about 966-1288 calories each day from avocados alone.  This was a real "Aha!" moment for him!

I have one last story to share.  I had a client who had lost weight, but then she hit a plateau.  As we explored her food intake, I learned that she was eating out several times a week, and we stumbled upon something interesting.  She had been ordering a dish that she believed to be more nutritious -- chicken and vegetables stir-fried in broth with brown rice.  That sounds pretty nutritious, right?  However, it turned out that the dish was around 1200 calories because of the portion size. What a revelation!

So, if you've been doing your best to eat more nutritious foods without seeing the payoff on the scale, it may be wise to take a closer look at your food intake to gain some insight.  You can do this by keeping a detailed record of your food intake for at least three days (two weekdays and one weekend day is a great place to start).  There are numerous websites online with diet analysis tools that you can use to analyze your own intake.  Some examples include MyPlate at or NutritionData at  Remember, the scale is not the ultimate judge of your success.  The fact that you are eating more nutritious foods is a wonderful accomplishment, and it's important to acknowledge that. Keep up your best efforts, and make it a nutritious day!   

Friday, October 8, 2010

Foodie Friday: Pumpkin Flax Pancakes

Photo credit: Michelle Loy. Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

As we head deeper into fall, I am excited to get reacquainted with some of those fabulous fall foods. Over the last month or so I've been a pumpkin junkie including pumpkin in breakfast, lunch, or dinner in a variety of ways. One of my favorite uses for pumpkin is in pumpkin pancakes. What could be better than eating a vegetable-infused pancake? These pancakes have just the right balance of sugar and spice...and everything nice! They truly hit the spot for me and my fam. I also love that pancakes are wonderful make-ahead foods. It's easy to make extra pancakes that I can freeze in a freezer-safe ziploc bag for later use. I just pop them out of the bag and into the toaster. In just a few minutes, I have a tasty and satisfying breakfast to enjoy. Here's to fall!

Pumpkin Flax Pancakes

2 cups whole wheat flour
2 Tbsp ground flaxseed
2 Tbsp brown sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1 3/4 c 1% milk
1 c pure pumpkin puree (fresh or canned - If using canned, be sure it is 100% pure pumpkin not pumpkin pie filling.)
1 egg
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 Tbsp vinegar
Olive oil cooking spray


  1. Stir together the milk, pumpkin, egg, oil, and vinegar in a bowl.
  2. In another bowl, mix the flour, flaxseed, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, spices, and salt.
  3. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and blend together with a rubber spatula until just combined.
  4. In a large pan over medium-high heat, spray with cooking spray. For each pancake, pour or scooop about 1/4 cup of batter onto the pan. (I usually can make 3-4 pancakes at a time in a large pan.) When bubbles begin to form on the surface and the edges begin to look a little dry, gently flip the pancakes. Cook another 2-3 minutes until done.
*Notes: You can also use whole wheat baking mix instead of the flour, baking powder, and baking soda. If using fresh pumpkin, be sure that you are using the right kind of pumpkin (eg, sugar pumpkin). Pumpkins that are used for carving jack-o-lanterns will not work.  You can also substitute 2-3 tsp pumpkin pie spice for the cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and ginger.

Serves: 6 (2 pancakes each)

Nutritional Information:
Calories: 256   Carbohydrate: 40 g   Fat: 8 g   Monounsaturated fat: 3.3 g   Protein:  10 g   Cholesterol: 39 mg   Fiber:  7 g  Sugar:  8 g   Sodium:  535 mg
Excellent source of: omega-3 fatty acids, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin D, vitamin A, magnesium, and zinc.
Good source of: vitamin B6, B12, vitamin E, calcium, and iron.
*This recipe is high in sodium. Most of the sodium comes from the baking soda, salt, and baking powder. The sodium content could be reduced by nearly 200 mg by leaving out the salt.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Which matters most for weight loss - diet or exercise?


I've spent most of my professional practice as a dietitian working with clients on weight management, and one of the questions that pops up frequently is, "Which matters most for weight loss - diet or exercise?"  People want to prioritize their efforts, so I understand why they'd ask the question.  Most studies, as well as my experience, provide evidence that dietary changes alone produce greater weight loss results than exercise alone.  For some people this makes complete sense while others are interestingly surprised.  I find that some people believe that exercise will make more of the difference, so they will focus their efforts on that.  However, without making changes in their diet, most people will struggle to lose a significant amount of weight through exercise alone.   

Here's why.  There are approximately 3500 calories in a pound of fat. So to lose one pound of fat per week, one would need to create a caloric deficit of 500 calories per day.  Let's use an example of a person who weighs 150 pounds.  If this individual wanted to focus on exercise to lose one pound per week, that person would need to burn at least an extra 500 calories per day above and beyond what she's currently doing.  This is the equivalent of running 5 miles per day or walking on the stair climbing machine for 50 minutes per day or bicycling for 56 minutes per day or swimming for 1 hour per day.  I'm not saying this is impossible, but it could be tough for someone to make that type of change.  How do I know? I've seen it happen quite a bit.  I'll get a client who's been working out like mad with a trainer with minimal weight loss results and lots of frustration.  

On the other hand, if this individual wanted to focus on dietary modifications to lose one pound per week, that person would need to create a caloric deficit in the diet of about 500 calories per day.  While there are many ways to do this, here's one example of how this could work.  Maybe instead of a tall vanilla latte-no whip for breakfast, she switches to a tall nonfat latte for a savings of 160 calories.  Instead of putting 2 Tbsp of peanut butter on her whole wheat English muffin, she opts for 1 Tbsp and saves 100 calories.  Instead of 2 ounces of almonds for a morning snack, she opts for 1 ounce and saves 170 calories.  Instead of 1 Tbsp mayonnaise on the turkey sandwich at lunch, she opts for 2 Tbsp of avocado and saves 50 calories.  Instead of 1 cup of brown rice for dinner, she opts for 1/2 cup of brown rice and 1/2 cup of a California vegetable medley and saves 50 calories. These modest dietary changes alone created a caloric deficit of 530 calories over the course of the day.     

At the end of the day, though, I tell my clients this...a combination of both dietary changes and physical activity is the best strategy for long-term weight management.  Burning an average of 250 calories a day through exercise and making some small changes in the diet to save another 250 calories is likely a lot more manageable for someone to do.  While more exercise is ideal, this is a great place to start or at least build up to in the beginning.  In addition, there are many benefits to becoming more physically active other than weight loss -- reducing the risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, strengthening muscles and bones, improving mental health and well being, better sleep, and more!   In fact, exercise is so vital to health that doctors are now being encouraged to prescribe exercise, like they would medicine, to their patients.  One other side effect of including physical activity in a weight loss plan is that people tend to eat better when they are being physically active on a regular basis.  I often find that when physical activity goes to the wayside, so does the diet.  In fact, research studies have shown that people who incorporate regular physical activity into their routine tend to better manage their weight long-term. 

My honest opinion is that we do not have an epidemic of overweight and obesity in our country, but rather we have an epidemic of poor nutrition and inadequate physical activity.  These are the primary causes of a variety health-related problems for many people, and overweight and obesity are really just a couple of the possible symptoms of those underlying problems.  Rather than focus so much energy trying to see a certain number on the scale, I encourage my clients to focus on the behaviors of eating more nutritious foods and incorporating more physical activity into their lives. The weight, along with many other health benefits, will follow.  And that, my friends, is my two cents:)  

What do you think? 

Friday, October 1, 2010

Foodie Friday: Chewy Fruit and Nut Granola Bars

Photo credit: Michelle Loy. Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

If you've been a reader of my blog, you know I am a strong believer in planning when it comes to food. I can almost always be accused of having a granola or energy bar in my purse, bag, or car at any given moment. Why? This strategy helps me set-up my environment so that I have a nutritious food option available when I'm in a pinch. Maybe I have to sit in the doctor's office for longer than I anticipated. Maybe I got a late start in the morning and although I fed my kids breakfast, I didn't feed myself. Maybe I need something convenient to eat between meetings. Whatever the reason might be, I'm relieved that I have that planned option there. That brings me to my recipe today. While I do have my fave granola and energy bars, I recently decided to venture into the world of homemade granola bars. After seeing a recipe on Smitten Kitchen for "thick, chewy granola bars", I couldn't resist taking a stab at homemade granola bars myself. I was surprised to learn how easy these bars were to make, and my daughter enjoys helping me. I also love the fact that I know exactly what went into these granola bars, and I can change it up, if I like. So, here's my interpretation. Enjoy!

Chewy Fruit and Nut Granola Bars
Adapted from: Smitten Kitchen, 2010

1 2/3 c quick-rolled oats
1/3 c oat flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 c chopped walnuts
1/2 c raw pepitas
1/2 c golden raisins
1/2 c dried cherries (unsweetened)
1/3 c almond butter (You can also use peanut butter.)
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 Tbsp applesauce (unsweetened)
3 Tbsp vegetable oil
6 Tbsp honey (You can also use maple syrup.)
1 Tbsp water

*I used a total of 1 cup of nuts and 1 cup of dried fruit. You can experiment with 2 cups of other nuts or fruit, such as pecans, sunflower seeds, peanuts, cashews, sesame seeds, dried apricots, cranberries, apples, or coconut flakes. Also, if you don't want whole pieces of nuts or fruit, you may want to toss them into a food processor for a bit to break them up a little more.

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a 8" x 8" pan with parchment paper, including up the sides if possible, and spray with olive oil cooking spray.
  2. In a large bowl, mix together all of the dry ingredients, including the nuts and fruit.
  3. In another bowl, whisk together the almond butter, vanilla, applesauce, oil, honey, and water.
  4. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, and combine until the mixture is evenly crumbly.
  5. Spread the mixture into the prepared pan making sure to evenly cover the bottom. Press flat into the prepared pan. (I like to use a rubber spatula for this.)
  6. Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes, until golden brown around the edges. Remove from the oven and let the bars cool completely. (I lift the bars out of the pan using parchment paper to place on a cooling rack. It makes the cooling quicker.) Using a serrated knife, cut into 16 squares. Enjoy!
*To store, wrap individually or place in a single layer in an airtight container or store with parchment paper in between layers of bars. Mine keep well for at least a week in an airtight container on the counter. In humid weather, it's best to store these in the fridge. You can also try freezing them.

Serves: 16
Nutritional Information:
Calories: 222 Carbohydrate: 26 g Fat: 11.5 g Protein: 6 g Cholesterol: 0 mg Fiber: 3 g Sugar: 15 g (5 g is added sugar from honey) Sodium: 79 mg
Excellent source of omega 3 fatty acids and magnesium and a good source of thiamin, iron, and zinc.
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