Welcome to Coach Marisol’s Blog!

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Thank you so much for visiting!  I am so excited to share healthy lifestyle tips with my family, friends and clients.  You can look forward to reaping the rewards of my research, experiments with products and recipes as well my life experiences.

I am often asked why I’ve decided to redirect my life’s work to health and wellness – specifically weight loss and maintenance.

No stranger to the yo-yo cycles of weight loss & gain, confidence & insecurity, I was constantly searching for the newest information and training to help me live the best life.  The type of life that included pleasurable healthy food, a fit body I could be proud of and a sense of comfort in my own skin.  It’s a tall order but it’s a work in progress of course!

After many years of “dieting”, I gradually moved towards a Holistic approach to wellness through online research. I experimented with many forms of eating and exercise in search of a healthy lifestyle. During this time, I have run many high end restaurants that featured local, sustainable ingredients. A few years ago, I moved towards fast casual concept restaurants that featured more affordable menu options that did not match the wholesomeness of the foods I was used to serving. One day, I decided I could not sell another order of cheese fries – I felt like a fraud preaching healthy eating while selling commercial fried foods. That was my turning point. There were too many regular customers that really had no idea how they were hurting themselves. I want to help people get educated and develop healthy habits to make better choices that will keep them happy.

After researching different options for health coaching and nutrition programs, I enrolled in the Institute of Integrated Nutrition in 2015.  I was certified as a Health Coach in 2016.  I have since worked with a handful of clients of varying backgrounds and needs.  My experiences throughout this time have confirmed that the decision to dedicate my life to this field was the right choice for me.  Participating in the transformation of others, although challenging, is exciting, healing and inspiring.  It feels good to wake up and be excited to go to work.  To know that you are making a difference and to be content by living life on your own terms.

Check out more about myself here, my kick ass programs, and my clients’ testimonials

Find me on:

Twitter: @CoachMarisol
Facebook: @YouEmpowered.Life

Email: SolCoach@MarisolBallaro.com

I look forward to hearing from you!

-Coach M.

How Do I Keep My Blood Sugar Stable?

Oh, the words “blood sugar.”  Does it conjure up visions of restrictive eating, diabetes medications, or insulin injections?

Blood sugar is the measure of the amount of sugar in your blood. You need the right balance of sugar in your blood to fuel your brain and muscles.  The thing is, it can fluctuate. A lot.

This fluctuation is the natural balance between things that increase it; and things that decrease it. When you eat food with sugars or starches (“carbs”), then your digestive system absorbs sugar into your blood. When carbs are ingested and broken down into simple sugars, your body keeps blood sugar levels stable by secreting insulin. Insulin allows excess sugar to get it out of your bloodstream and into your muscle cells and other tissues for energy.

 

Why keep my blood sugar stable?

Your body wants your blood sugar to be at an optimal level. It should be high enough, so you’re not light-headed, fatigued, and irritable. It should be low enough that your body isn’t scrambling to remove excess from the blood.  When blood sugar is too low, this is referred to as “hypoglycemia.”

When blood sugar is too high, it is referred to as hyperglycemia.  Prolonged periods of elevated blood sugar levels (chronic hyperglycemia) can lead to “insulin resistance.”

Insulin resistance is when your cells are just so bored of the excess insulin that they start ignoring (resisting) it, and that keeps your blood sugar levels too high.  Insulin resistance and chronic hyperglycemia can eventually lead to diabetes.  So let’s look at how you can optimize your food and lifestyle to keep your blood sugar stable.

 

Food for stable blood sugar

The simplest thing to do to balance your blood sugar is to reduce the number of refined sugars and starches you eat.  To do this, you can start by dumping sweet drinks and having smaller portions of dessert.

Eating more fiber is helpful too. Fiber helps to slow down the amount of sugar absorbed from your meal; it reduces the “spike” in your blood sugar level.  Fiber is found in plant-based foods (as long as they are eaten in their natural state, processing foods removed fiber).  Eating nuts, seeds, and whole fruits and veggies (not juiced) is a great way to increase your fiber intake.

FUN FACT: Cinnamon has been shown to help cells increase insulin sensitivity. Not to mention it’s a delicious spice that can be used in place of sugar. (HINT: It’s in the recipe below)

 

Lifestyle for stable blood sugar

Exercise also helps to improve your insulin sensitivity; this means that your cells don’t ignore insulin’s call to get excess sugar out of the blood.  Not to mention, when you exercise, your muscles are using up that sugar they absorbed from your blood. But you already knew that exercise is healthy, didn’t you?

Would you believe that stress affects your blood sugar levels? Yup! Stress hormones increase your blood sugar levels. If you think about the “fight or flight” stress response, what fuel do your brain and muscles need to “fight” or “flee”? Sugar! When you are stressed signals are sent to release stored forms of sugar back into the bloodstream, increasing blood sugar levels.  So, try to reduce the stress you’re under and manage it more effectively. Simple tips are meditation, deep breathing, or gentle movement.

Sleep goes hand-in-hand with stress. When you don’t get enough quality sleep, you tend to release stress hormones, have a higher appetite, and even get sugar cravings. Sleep is crucial, often overlooked, factor when it comes to keeping your blood sugar stable. Make sleep more of a priority – it will do your blood sugar (and the rest of your physical and mental health) good.

 

Conclusion

Your body is on a constant 24-hour quest to keep your blood sugar stable. The body has mechanisms in place to do this, but those mechanisms can get tired (resistant).  Long-term blood sugar issues can spell trouble.

There are many nutrition and lifestyle approaches you can take to help keep your blood sugar stable. Minimizing excessive carbs, and eating more fiber, exercising, reducing stress, and improving sleep are all key to having stable blood sugar (and overall good health).

 

Recipe (blood sugar balancing): Cinnamon Apples

Serves 4

2 apples, chopped                                                                                                                             1 tbsp coconut oil
½ tsp ground cinnamon
⅛ tsp sea salt
¼ tsp vanilla extract

Place chopped apples into a small saucepan with 2 tbsp water. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally. After about 5 minutes the apples will become slightly soft, and water will be absorbed.  Add 1 tbsp coconut oil. Stir apples and oil together.  Cook for another 5 minutes, stirring every minute or so.  Add cinnamon, salt, and vanilla. Stir well.  Cook for another few minutes, stirring until the apples reach your desired softness.
Serve and enjoy!
Tip: Keeping the peel on increases the fiber, which is even better for stabilizing your blood sugar.

 

References:

https://authoritynutrition.com/15-ways-to-lower-blood-sugar/

http://www.precisionnutrition.com/research-review-blood-sugar

Ch Ch Ch Chia!

 

Chia Seeds

You love them, hate them or don’t know what the heck to do with them.  Am I right?  I am constantly being asked how to incorporate them into a healthy diet (in an easy way).  Chia Seeds are one of my favorite super foods.  They are an edible seed that comes from the desert plant Salvia hispanica, a member of the mint family that grows abundantly in southern Mexico.  Yes! They are the same seeds you saw growing on Chia Pets.

 

Superfood Status

Nutritionists generally agree that foods with  higher than usual antioxidant, fiber or essential fatty acid content can be called superfoods.  Let’s break this bad boy down:

  • Chia is very rich in omega-3 fatty acids, even more so than flax seeds.  The Omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidants in Chia are fantastic for maintaining healthy, supple skin – a quick search for skin loving smoothies will direct you blend berries, water/juice with Chia.
  • The high volume of healthy fats in Chia also protect your heart by lowering blood pressure, cholesterol & inflammation
  • Chia is so rich in antioxidants that the seeds don’t deteriorate and thus can be stored for long periods without becoming rancid. Unlike flax, they do not have to be ground to make their nutrients available.
  • Chia seeds also provide fiber, as well as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, copper, iron, molybdenum, niacin, and zinc.  They’re high fiber content make it great for people managing diabetes or working to lose weight as they are also low in digestible carbs.  Fiber is a must in a healthy diet – and especially important for weight loss as it adds bulk without adding extra calories becasue it passes through the body undigested.
  • They’re a Mood Booster!  Chia Seeds can actually make you happier because of the amino acids and tryptophan found in them.
  • They are an Energy Booster!  Chia seeds fight dehydration, provide a considerable amount of energy, reduce joint inflammation and accelerate post-run recovery.

I know it’s  a long list of goodness but there’s more.  Chia is an excellent staple for Vegans.  When added to water and allowed to sit for 10 minutes, chia forms a gel, which works well as an egg replacer in many baked goods.

If you’re ever feeling constipated or just need a little help, take one to two heaping tablespoons daily (it’s a gentle form of fiber).  Add to your green smoothie or your water bottle along with some slice citrus or other fruit.

Chia seeds are incredibly easy to use and can be added to smoothies, salads, and even breakfast cereals.  I gave one of my clients a bag of Chia Seeds which she took to work.  She told me she added it to salads and most recently she sent me this picture.  She added it to her Tuna Salad on crackers.  Genius!

You can buy chia seeds in many health food stores. They are usually located in the raw foods or bulk sections. If you don’t have a health food store near you, you can get chia seeds online.

 

OK, today’s recipe is provided by cocooncooks.com:

 

Ingredients

4 cups filtered water
1 cup | 135 gr. blackberries
2 limes
3 tbsp chia seeds
3 tbsp maple syrup

 

 

STEP BY STEP

Start by gathering, preparing and measuring all of the ingredients. This will improve your dynamic in the kitchen.

  1. In a high speed blender, combine 3/4 cup | 100 gr. blackberries with the juice of 1 1/2 limes, the maple syrup and 2 cups of water.
  2. Blend until completely smooth.
  3. Strain this mixture with the help of a fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth.
  4. In a large jar or bottle, combine the chia seeds with 2 cups of water and stir thoroughly, making sure the seeds do not form clumps.
  5. Pour in the blackberry and lime mixture and stir again.
  6. Drop in the remaining blackberries and the lime half, cut in thin slices.
  7. Place the jar in the fridge and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes.
  8. Serve on ice and enjoy!

 

Resources:

http://www.cocooncooks.com/blog-en/blackberry-lime-chia-fresca

Why You Should Eat Chia Seeds?

16 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Chia Seeds

Five Weight-Loss Friendly Snacks You Will Love

I just returned from a short 2 day stay in Las Vegas.  If you’ve been there, you know its all about excess!  Even though I like to indulge every now and then, I always balance it out with healthy options the rest f the day.  There is no reason to turn an indulgent treat into a downward spiral that lasts days that lead to weeks and well, you know what I mean.  So, when you’re staying in hotels, you don’t have the ability to cook your own meals.  I am pretty good at maneuvering through a menu to create a healthy meal with the help of my server.  But how much control do you really have over your vacation meals?  In comes snacks.   A must when you’re walking miles a day on the strip and all the other fun adventures that may be building up an appetite.  Prep these items before you head out (pack a cooler if you’re driving).  You’ll save time, money and your sanity!

Now, the words “weight-loss” and “snacks” often appear in the same sentence.   But that might also bring thoughts of “tasteless,” “cardboard,” and “completely unsatisfying.”  Right?  Let me give you my best weight-loss friendly snacks that aren’t just nutritious but also delicious ( I packed several for my trip – and many are staples in my day to day)!  What’s my criteria you ask?  They have to be nutrient-dense whole foods where a little goes a long way;  foods that contain protein and/or fiber.

1 – Nuts

It’s true – nuts contain calories and fat, but they are NOT fattening!  Well, I’m not talking about the “honey roasted” ones, of course. Those probably are fattening.  Studies show that people who eat nuts tend to be healthier and leaner. By the way, nuts also contain protein and fiber, which means a small amount can go pretty far in terms of filling you up. Not to mention the vitamins and minerals you can get from nuts.

Did you know that almonds have been shown to help with weight loss? At least 10% of the fat in them is not absorbed by the body, and almonds can also help to boost your metabolism!

Tip: Put a handful of unsalted/unsweetened nuts into a small container and throw it in your purse or bag.

 

2 – Fresh Fruit

As with nuts, studies show that people who tend to eat more fruit, tend to be healthier. (I’m sure you’re not too surprised!)  Yes, fresh fruit contains sugar, but whole fruits (I’m not talking juice or sweetened dried fruit) also contain a fair bit of water and fiber; not to mention their nutritional value with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. And fresh fruit is low in calories.

Fiber is something that not only helps to fill you up (known as the “satiety factor”) but also helps to slow the release of the fruit sugar into your bloodstream and reduce the notorious “blood sugar spike.”  Win-win!  Try a variety of fruit (apples, pears, berries, etc.) and pair that with a handful of nuts.

Tip: Can’t do fresh? Try frozen. Plus, they’re already chopped for you.

 

3 – Chia Seeds

This is one of my personal favorites…

Chia is not only high in fiber (I mean HIGH in fiber), but it also contains protein and omega-3 fatty acids (yes THOSE omega-3s!). As well as antioxidants, calcium, and magnesium.  Can you see how awesome these tiny guys are?  They also absorb a lot of liquid, so by soaking them for a few minutes, they make a thick pudding (that is delicious and fills you up).

Tip: Put two tablespoons in a bowl with ½ cup of nut milk and wait a few minutes. Add in some berries, chopped fruit or nuts, and/or cinnamon and enjoy!  Here’s a link for some delicious recipes.

 

4 – Boiled or Poached Eggs

Eggs are packed with nutrition and most of it is in the yolk.  They contain a lot of high-quality protein and a good amount of vitamins and minerals.  Recent research shows that the cholesterol in the yolks is NOT associated with high elevated cholesterol or heart disease risk.  Yup, you read that right!

Tip: Boil a bunch of eggs and keep them in your fridge for a super-quick (and nutritious) snack (try them with a little cajun seasoning – yum)!

 

5 – Vegetables

I don’t need to tell you how great these are for you, but just maybe I need to sell you on the delicious “snackability” of these nutrition powerhouses.  Veggies contain fiber and water to help fill you up, and you don’t need me to tell you about their vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, right?  You can easily open a bag of baby carrots and/or cherry tomatoes and give them a quick rinse (they’re already bite-sized).  Peeled and chopped jicama & cucumber sprinkled with a little chili and lime make another yummy snack.

Tip: Use a bit of dip. Have you put almond butter on celery? How about trying my hummus recipe below?

 

Conclusion:

Go ahead and try one, or more, of these healthy snacks. Prepare them the night before if you need to. They will not be “tasteless,” like “cardboard,” or “completely unsatisfying.” Trust me.

 

Recipe (Vegetable Dip): Hummus

Makes about 2 cups

1  can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained (keep liquid & set aside) & rinsed

⅓ cup tahini

1 or 2 garlic cloves

2 tbsp sesame oil

2 tbsp lemon juice

salt to taste

pepper to taste

Put all ingredients into a food processor and blend until smooth. You may need to thin it out with a bit of the liquid you set aside from the can, so add it 1 or 2 tablespoons at a time and blend.  Serve & enjoy!

Tip: Don’t like sesame? Use an avocado in place of the tahini, and olive oil in place of the sesame oil.  Feel free to add your favorite spices like paprika and/or cumin.  Sometimes I add in some fresh jalapeno or roasted bell pepper.

 

References:

https://authoritynutrition.com/20-most-weight-loss-friendly-foods/

https://authoritynutrition.com/foods/almonds/

http://www.precisionnutrition.com/encyclopedia/food/almonds/

https://authoritynutrition.com/is-fruit-good-or-bad-for-your-health/

https://www.dietvsdisease.org/best-fruits-diabetics/

https://authoritynutrition.com/foods/apples/

https://authoritynutrition.com/fresh-vs-frozen-fruit-and-vegetables/

https://authoritynutrition.com/11-proven-health-benefits-of-chia-seeds/

http://www.precisionnutrition.com/encyclopedia/food/eggs/

Raw vs. Cooked – Which Contains More Vitamins and Minerals?

Let’s finally put an end to the debate of raw vs. cooked.

Of course, in the grand scheme of a well-balanced, nutrient-dense, varied, whole foods diet, the cooked vs. raw debate isn’t that critical for most people.  Where this can become a consideration is for vitamin and mineral deficiencies (or “insufficiencies”). These may be due to digestion or absorption issues, or avoidance of certain foods (due to allergies, intolerances, or choice).  And I’ll tell you that the answer isn’t as simple as “raw is always better” or “cooked is always better.”  As with most nutrition science, it depends on several factors. Some vitamins are destroyed in cooking, while others become easier to absorb (a.k.a. more “bioavailable”).  Here is the skinny on vitamins and minerals in raw foods versus cooked foods.

 

Foods to Eat Raw

As a general rule, water soluble nutrients, like vitamin C and the B vitamins, found mostly in fruits and vegetables, are best eaten raw.  The reason why is two-fold.

First, when these nutrients are heated, they tend to degrade;  this is from any heat, be it steaming, boiling, roasting, or frying. Vitamin C and the B vitamins are a bit more “delicate” and susceptible to heat than many other nutrients. Of course, the obvious way to combat these nutrient losses is to eat foods high vitamin C and B vitamins in their raw form (like in an awesome salad) or to cook them for as short a time as possible (like quickly steaming or blanching).

Fun fact: Raw spinach can contain three times the amount of vitamin C as cooked spinach.

The second reason why foods high in vitamin C and the B vitamins are best eaten raw is that they’re “water soluble.”  So, guess where the vitamins go when they’re cooked in water?  Yes, they’re dissolved right into the water;  this is particularly true for fruits and veggies that are boiled and poached but even for foods that are steamed as well.  Of course, if you’re a savvy health nut, you’ll probably keep that liquid to use in your next soup or sauce to preserve those nutrients that are left after cooking. Just don’t overheat it or you may lose what you were aiming to keep.  But, how much loss are we talking about?  Well, of course, it ranges but can go from as low as 15%, up to over 50%.

In short, the water soluble vitamins like vitamin C and the B vitamins degrade with heat and some of what’s left over after they’re heated dissolves into the cooking water. So be sure to cook your fruits and veggies as little as possible, and keep that cooking water to use in your next recipe.

 

Soaking nuts and seeds

Regarding raw nuts and seeds, it may be beneficial to soak them. Soaking nuts and seeds (for several hours at room temperature) allows some of the minerals to become “unlocked” from their chemical structure, so they’re more absorbable.

 

Foods to eat cooked

Cooking certain orange and red “beta-carotene rich” veggies (e.g. tomatoes, carrots, & sweet potatoes) can help make this pre-vitamin A compound more absorbable.  Fun fact: One study found that absorption of beta-carotene was 6.5 times greater in stir-fried carrots than in raw carrots!  Of course, eating your fat-soluble vitamins with a bit of fat will help you to absorb more of them, so that’s one factor to consider.

 

One vegetable that’s best eaten both raw and cooked

Spinach!  And I’m not just saying this to get everyone to eat it any way possible (although, I would love for this to happen).  Spinach contains so many beneficial compounds that it’s great eaten both raw and cooked.  Eating raw spinach preserves the water-soluble vitamins C & the B vitamins.  Eating spinach cooked allows the pre-vitamin A, as well as some of the minerals like iron to be better absorbed. Not to mention how much spinach reduces in size when it’s cooked, so it’s easier to eat way more cooked spinach than raw spinach.

 

Conclusion:

The old nutrition philosophy of making sure you get a lot of nutrient-dense whole foods into your diet holds true. Feel free to mix up how you eat them, whether you prefer raw or cooked just make sure you eat them.

 

Recipe: Sauteed Spinach

Serves 4

2 teaspoons olive oil

2 (or more) cloves minced garlic

1 bag baby spinach leaves

1 dash salt

1 dash black pepper

Fresh lemon

  1. In a large cast iron pan heat olive oil.
  2. Add garlic and saute for 1 minute.
  3. Add spinach, salt, pepper and toss with garlic and oil.
  4. Cover pan and cook on low for about 1 minute.
  5. Stir until all the spinach is wilted.
  6. Squeeze fresh lemon juice on top.

Serve & enjoy!

Nutrition Tip: Enjoying the cooked spinach with the vitamin C in the “raw” lemon juice helps your body absorb more of the iron.

Pro Tip: Buy peeled garlic and process in food processor until it’s all minced.  Store in a glass container and add Olive Oil until the spinach is completely submerged.  Keep in Fridge and scoop out as needed when cooking.  (Sometimes I add chili flakes and/or sun-dried tomatoes while processing)

References:

https://authoritynutrition.com/cooking-nutrient-content/

http://www.precisionnutrition.com/10-ways-to-get-the-most-nutrients

The Coconut Oil Craze – Who’s Right?

I was surprised to see the American Heart Association’s new conclusions about coconut oil for heart health. To understand why they are wrong, check out Dr. Michael Cutler’s post here.  To find out why it’s an amazing superfood and which type to include in your diet, keep reading.

Coconut oil is a special kind of fat

Coconut oil is fat and contains the same 9 calories per gram as other fats.  It is extracted from the “meat” of the coconut. Coconut oil is a white solid at room temperature and easily melts into a clear liquid on a hot day.

The idea of adding coconut oil to your diet is NOT to add on to what you already eat but to substitute it for some of the (possibly) less healthy fats you may be eating now.  And here’s why – Because not all calories or fats are created equal.

Coconut oil contains a unique type of fat known as “Medium Chain Triglycerides” (MCTs). In fact, 65% of the fat in coconut oil are these MCTs.  What makes MCTs unique is how your body metabolizes them;  they’re easily absorbed into the bloodstream by your gut, where they go straight to the liver, and they’re burned for fuel or converted into “ketones.”  This metabolic process, unique to MCTs, is what sets coconut oil apart from other fats.

 

Coconut oil MCTs may help with fat loss

Coconut oil’s MCTs have been shown to have a few different fat loss benefits.

  • #1  It can help to increase feelings of fullness, which can lead to a natural reduction in the amount of food you eat.
  • #2 Because of their unique metabolic route, MCTs can also increase the number of calories you burn;  this happens when you compare the calories burned after eating the same amount of other fats.  In fact, a few studies show that coconut oil may increase the number of calories you burn by as much as 5%.
  • #3 Some studies show that eating coconut oil can help reduce belly fat (a.k.a. “waist circumference”).

Just remember not to add coconut oil to your diet without reducing other fats and oils!

 

How much coconut oil should I eat?

Many of the studies that showed increased fullness, increased metabolism, and reduced belly fat only used about 2 tablespoons per day.  You probably don’t need any more than that.

 

What kind of coconut oil is the best?

There are so many coconut oil options available in grocery stores these days that it can make it difficult to know which is best.  I recommend you stay away from “refined” ones, and opt for “virgin” coconut oil. That is because it is processed at lower temperatures and avoids some of the chemical solvents used in the refining process;  this helps to preserve more of the oil’s natural health-promoting antioxidants.

Pro Tip: Always (and I mean ALWAYS) avoid “hydrogenated” coconut oil. It can be a health nightmare because it contains the infamous “trans fats.”

One thing you should also consider is that each oil has a specific high temperature that you should avoid surpassing (e.g. its “smoke point”). For virgin coconut oil, that temperature is 350F. That means you can safely use it on the stovetop on a low-medium setting, as well as in most baking.

 

Conclusion:

Substitute some of the fat you eat with virgin coconut oil;  this may help you to lose weight and belly fat by naturally helping you to eat less, as well as slightly increasing your metabolism.  Oh, and it tastes great too!

 

Recipe (Coconut Oil): Homemade Healthy Chocolate

Serves 12

⅓ cup coconut oil, melted

1 cup cocoa/cacao powder

4 tablespoons maple syrup

2 dashes salt

4 tablespoons slivered almonds

  1. Melt coconut oil, and whisk in maple syrup, salt, and cocoa/cacao powder until smooth.
  2. Stir in slivered almonds until evenly distributed.
  3. Pour into an ice cube tray (or on wax paper lined tray) and freeze.
  4. Store in fridge or freezer to avoid melting.

Serve & enjoy!

Tip: Substitute other seeds, chopped nuts, or dried fruit instead of the almonds if you wish.  Add a dash of cayenne, cinnamon or even a drop or two of your favorite essential oil or extract (think peppermint, orange, or almond) to make it your own.  Today I made it with coconut nectar because I was out of maple syrup.  I’m sure honey would also be another delicious substitution.  I made a double batch.  First batch was as listed above.  Second batch had peppermint extract and sesame seeds.  Happy dance!

 

References:

https://authoritynutrition.com/top-10-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-coconut-oil/

https://authoritynutrition.com/coconut-oil-and-weight-loss/

https://authoritynutrition.com/20-most-weight-loss-friendly-foods/

http://www.precisionnutrition.com/encyclopedia/food/coconut-oil/

http://neurotrition.ca/blog/your-brain-coconut-oil

The Gut-Brain Connection: How To Feed Your Brain

If there was ever a call for “digestive health,” this is it!  Yes, it’s true. Your gut is considered your “second brain.”  There is no denying it anymore.   Because of the new scientific discoveries about the vagus nerve, the enteric nervous system, and the amazing influence your gut microbes can have, it’s no wonder what you eat feeds not only your body but can directly affect your brain.  I find it amazing (but not too surprising).

What exactly is the “gut-brain connection”?

Well, it’s very complex, and to be honest, we’re still learning lots about it!

There seem to be multiple things working together.  Things like:

  • The vagus nerve that links the gut directly to the brain;
  • The “enteric nervous system” (A.K.A. “second brain) that helps the complex intricacies of digestion flow with little to no involvement from the actual brain;
  • The massive amount of neurotransmitters produced by the gut;
  • The huge part of the immune system that is in the gut, but can travel throughout the body; and,
  • The interactions and messages sent by the gut microbes.

This is complex… and amazing, if you ask me.  I’ll briefly touch on these areas, and end off with a delicious recipe (of course!)

Vagus Nerve

There is a nerve that runs directly from the gut to the brain.  And after reading this so far, you’ll probably get a sense of which direction 90% of the transmission is…  Not from your brain to your gut (which is what we used to think), but from your gut up to your brain!

The Enteric Nervous System and Neurotransmitters

Would you believe me if I told you that the gut has more nerves than your spinal cord?  I knew you would!  And that’s why it’s referred to as the “second brain.”  If you think about it, controlling the complex process of digestion (i.e. digestive enzymes, absorption of nutrients, the flow of food, etc.) should probably be done pretty “smartly”…don’t you think?

Guess how these nerves speak to each other, and to other cells? By chemical messengers called “neurotransmitters.” In fact, many of the neurotransmitters that have a strong effect on our mood are made in the gut! e.g. a whopping 95% of serotonin is made in your gut, not in your brain!

The Immune System of the Gut

Because eating and drinking is a huge portal where disease-causing critters can get into your body, it makes total sense that much of our defense system would be located there too, right? Seventy-five percent of our immune system is in our gut!  You know that the immune cells can move throughout the entire body and cause inflammation just about anywhere, right?  Well, if they’re “activated” by something in the gut, they can potentially wreak havoc anywhere in the body. Including the potential to cause inflammation in the brain.

Gut Microbes

Your friendly neighborhood gut residents. You have billions of those little guys happily living in your gut. And they do amazing things like help you digest certain foods, make certain vitamins, and even help regulate inflammation!  But more and more evidence is showing that changes in your gut microbiota can impact your mood, and even other, more serious, mental health issues.

How do these all work together for brain health?

The honest answer to how these things all work together is that we really don’t know just yet. More and more studies are being done to learn more.  But one thing is becoming clear. A healthy gut goes hand-in-hand with a healthy brain!  So, how do you feed your brain?

Of course, a variety of minimally-processed, nutrient-dense foods is required, because no nutrients work alone.  But two things that you many consider eating more of are fiber and omega-3 fats. Fiber (in fruits, veggies, nuts & seeds) help to feed your awesome gut microbes. And omega-3 fats (in fatty fish, walnuts, algae, and seeds like flax, chia, and hemp) are well-know inflammation-lowering brain boosters.

Blueberry Hemp Overnight Oats (Fiber for your gut, Omega-3 for your brain):

1 cup blueberries (fresh or frozen)

1 cup oats (gluten-free)

1 cup almond milk

1 tablespoon chia seeds

2 tablespoons hemp seeds

½ teaspoon cinnamon

1 banana, sliced

¼ cup chopped walnuts

  1. Blend blueberries in the food processor until smooth.
  2. Mix blueberries, oats, almond milk, chia seeds and hemp seeds in a bowl with a lid. Let set in fridge overnight.
  3. Split into two bowls and top with cinnamon, banana, and walnuts.
  4. Serve & enjoy!

Tip: Your gut microbes love to eat the fiber in the blueberries, oats, seeds, and nuts. Meanwhile, your brain loves the omega-3 fats in the seeds and nuts.

References:

http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626

http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_body/the-brain-gut-connection

http://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-probiotics

http://www.precisionnutrition.com/fix-gut-fix-health

http://neurotrition.ca/blog/your-gut-bugs-what-they-eat-and-7-ways-feed-them

Is My Poop Normal?

Yes, I’m serious! (And don’t you sometimes wonder anyway?)  You already know that your poop can reflect your physical, and sometimes even emotional, health.

You may get constipation or have diarrhea when you eat something that “doesn’t agree with you,” or when you’re super-nervous about something.  And what about fiber and water? If you’re not getting enough, it’ll probably show in your poop.  What about the all-important gut microbes? If they’re not happy, it’ll probably show in your poop.

Here’s a trivia question for you:

Did you know there is an “official” standard for poop? I mean a university-created chart! One that is used to help diagnose conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

Meet the Bristol Stool Scale

BristolStoolChart (1)

The Bristol Stool Scale was created at the prestigious University of Bristol in the UK back in 1997.  The scale breaks down type of poop into seven different categories ranging from type 1 which is very constipated, to type 7 which is diarrhea:

Other “poop” factors to consider

You probably guessed that the shapes described in the Bristol Stool Scale are not the only thing to consider for poop health.

Think about how often you go. At least once per day, up to 3 times per day is pretty good. Less than one, or more than three can mean there is something going on.

What about how hard you have to try to go? You want it to be as effortless as possible.

And the color? It should be brown from the bile that you need to break down the fats you ingest.  And if it’s green after a day of massive veggies, or red after that large glass of beet juice, you’re just fine.  But if you see an abnormal color, like red or even black, that you can’t explain based on what you ate or drank in the last day or two, you probably want to get that checked out.

What do you do when you have “imperfect” poo?

Well, the first thing to consider is how imperfect it is, and how often it is like that. Once in a while, things aren’t going to be perfect, and that’s A-OK.

If you know you need to get more fiber or water, then try increasing that.  If you haven’t had enough probiotic foods, then try getting more of them.  If you’re super-stressed, then try deep breathing, meditating, or having a warm bath.  Oh, and don’t forget the two most basic pieces of nutrition advice:

  • First, eat a variety of nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods, including a lot of fruits & veggies (and their “fibrous” skins, wherever possible). The fiber in these is not only helpful for pushing food through your gut, but they also feed those millions of amazing helpful critters that live there (your friendly gut microbes.)
  • The second piece of advice is to eat slowly, and mindfully, chewing thoroughly.

These are good habits for anyone and everyone, even when you have perfect poop!  Of course, long-term issues might require a more thorough review with a qualified health care practitioner. Don’t suffer from poop issues for too long before seeking help.

 

Recipe (dairy-free probiotic): Super-Simple Coconut Milk Yogurt

coconut milk yogurt

Serves 6

2 cans full-fat coconut milk

2 probiotic capsules,

Open the probiotic capsules and empty contents into the blender. Blend with coconut milk.

  1. Transfer to a sanitized glass jar (make sure it’s not still hot – you don’t want those probiotics to die) with a tight fitting lid.
  2. Store it in a warm place for 24-48 hours. If it’s not thick enough for you, you can let it ferment for another 24 hours.
  3. Add your favourite yogurt toppings, and store the rest for up to a week in the fridge.
  4. Serve & enjoy!

Tip: Fermenting food is not an exact science. If this doesn’t work out as you’d like it to, try different brands of coconut milk (look for ones without carrageenan) and/or probiotics.  Check out my favorite probiotic here.

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bristol_stool_scale

http://www.precisionnutrition.com/poop-health

Can My Symptoms Actually Be a Food Intolerance?

Food intolerances or “sensitivities” can affect you in so many ways.  And they’re a lot more common than most people think.

I’m not talking about anaphylaxis or immediate allergic reactions that involve an immune response. Those can be serious and life-threatening.  If you have any allergies, you need to steer clear of any traces of foods you are allergic to, and speak with your doctor or pharmacist about emergency medication, if necessary.

What I’m talking about, is an intolerance, meaning you do not tolerate a specific food very well and it causes immediate or chronic symptoms anywhere in the body. Symptoms can take hours or even days to show themselves. And symptoms can be located just about anywhere in the body.  This is what makes them so tricky to identify.

 

Symptoms of Food Intolerances

There are some common food intolerances that have immediate and terribly painful gastrointestinal symptoms, such as lactose intolerance or celiac disease. These can cause stomach pain, gas, bloating, and/or diarrhea;  symptoms can start immediately after eating lactose or gluten.

On the other hand, other more insidious symptoms may not be linked to foods in an obvious way.  Symptoms like:

  • Chronic muscle or joint pain
  • Sweating, or increased heart rate or blood pressure
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Exhaustion after a good night’s sleep
  • Autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Rashes or eczema
  • Inability to concentrate or feeling like your brain is “foggy”
  • Shortness of breath

If your body has trouble digesting specific foods, it can affect your hormones, metabolism, or even cause inflammation and result in any of the symptoms listed above. And these can affect any (or all) parts of the body, not just your gastrointestinal system.

 

How to Prevent these Intolerances

The main thing you can do is to figure out which foods or drinks you may be reacting to and stop ingesting them.  I know, I know…this sounds so simple, and yet it can be SO HARD.

The best way to identify your food/drink triggers is to eliminate them.

Yup, get rid of those offending foods/drinks. All traces of them, for three full weeks and monitor your symptoms.  If things get better, then you need to decide whether it’s worth it to stop ingesting them, or if you want to slowly introduce them back one at a time while still looking out to see if/when symptoms return.

 

Start Here: Two Common Food Intolerances

Here are two of the most common triggers of food intolerances:

  • Lactose (in dairy – eliminate altogether, or look for a “lactose-free” label – try nut or coconut milk instead).
  • Gluten (in wheat, rye, and other common grains – look for a “gluten-free” label – try gluten-free grains like rice, quinoa & gluten-free oats).

This is by no means a complete list, but it’s a good place to start because lactose intolerance is thought to affect up to 75% of people, while “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” can affect up to 13% of people.

So, if you can eliminate all traces of lactose and gluten for three weeks, it can confirm whether either or both of these, are a source of your symptoms.

Yes, dairy and grains are a part of many government-recommended food guidelines, but you absolutely can get all of the nutrients you need if you focus on replacing them with nutrient-dense foods.

A reliable way to monitor how you feel after eating certain foods is to track it. After every meal or snack, write down the foods you ate, and any symptoms so you can more easily spot trends.

Click here to download a free copy of my Weekly Diet Diary/Food Journal to help you track.

And, as mentioned earlier, symptoms may not start immediately following a meal. You may find, for example, that you wake up with a headache the morning after eating bananas.  You might be surprised what links you can find if you track your food and symptoms well!

IMPORTANT NOTE: When you eliminate something, you need to make sure it’s not hiding in other foods, or the whole point of eliminating it for a few weeks is lost. Restaurant food, packaged foods, and sauces or dressings are notorious for adding ingredients that you’d never think are there. You know that sugar hides in almost everything, but did you also know that wheat is often added to processed meats and soy sauce, and lactose can even be found in some medications or supplements?

When in doubt you HAVE to ask the server in a restaurant about hidden ingredients, read labels, and consider cooking from scratch.

 

What if it doesn’t work?

If eliminating these two common food intolerances doesn’t work, then you can go one step further to eliminate all dairy (even lactose-free) and all grains (even gluten-free) for three weeks.

You may need to see a qualified healthcare practitioner for help, and that’s OK. I don’t want you to continue suffering if you don’t need to!

 

Recipe (dairy-free milk): Homemade Nut/Seed Milk

Vegan milk from nuts in glass jar

Makes 3 cups

  • ½ cup raw nuts/seeds (almonds, walnuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds, or sesame seeds)
  • 2 cups filtered water
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)

 

 

  1. Soak nuts/seeds for about 8 hours (optional, but recommended).
  2. Dump soaking water & rinse nuts/seeds.
  3. Add soaked nuts/seeds and 2 cups filtered water to a high-speed blender and blend on high for about one minute until very smooth.
  4. Strain through a small mesh sieve with 2 layers of cheesecloth. Squeeze if necessary. (I skip this step most of the time but I don’t mind the texture)
  5. Serve & enjoy!

Tip: You can double the recipe and store the milk in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 7 days.

 

References:

http://www.dietvsdisease.org/11-warning-signs-you-have-a-food-intolerance/

https://authoritynutrition.com/lactose-intolerance-101/

https://authoritynutrition.com/signs-you-are-gluten-intolerant/

http://www.precisionnutrition.com/food-sensitivities-health-infographic

All About Digestive Enzymes

Not everyone should be taking digestive enzyme supplements; and not all of them are created equal.  As a health coach, I find that many people with digestive issues want to jump straight into using a supplement. And many times I would rather try other strategies first. Not to mention, that some supplements can be harmful if used inappropriately.

So, let’s dive into a few of the common digestive enzymes, what they do, and who should NOT take them.

What are digestive enzymes?                                                                                         

Technically, “enzymes” are compounds that help critical biochemical reactions to happen in your body. These reactions can be anything, from making neurotransmitters like serotonin, to burning food for energy, to breaking down food we eat into smaller pieces that our guts can absorb.  Oh, and they all end with “ase”.

As I just hinted, “digestive enzymes” are specifically those enzymes we use for digestion. They’re enzymes that our digestive system naturally makes and secretes when we eat.

Now, all of the “macro-nutrients” we eat (carbs, protein & fat) need to be broken down into their individual (smaller) parts so that we can properly absorb and digest them. They’re just too big otherwise, and if we don’t absorb them properly, we can get symptoms of fatigue, malnutrition, digestive distress, or a host of other symptoms.

It is these individual (smaller) parts that our body amazingly rearranges and uses to create other larger molecules that our body needs.  The most common digestive enzymes you’ll see on product labels are:

  • Amylase – Helps to break down starch into its sugars.
  • alpha-Galactosidase – Helps to break down specific “fermentable carbohydrates” into its sugars.
  • Lactase – Helps to break down lactose into its sugars.
  • Protease – Helps to break down protein into its amino acids.
  • Bromelain and/or Papain – Help to break down protein into its amino acids.
  • Lipase – Helps to break down fats into its lipids.

Who should consider taking digestive enzymes?                                                                     

I would always recommend that you see a qualified health care practitioner for an expert opinion on whether your issues can be related to digestion, and which, if any, supplements can help you.

In general, the most common digestive symptoms that enzymes *may* help with are bloating, cramping, and/or diarrhea. Particularly if it happens after eating certain foods (think lactose-intolerance symptoms after eating dairy).

One reason for these symptoms can be that food particles are not broken down properly, and the larger pieces travel further down the digestive tract to the microbiota where those little critters start breaking them down themselves. And this is definitely troublesome for certain people.

Don’t get me wrong, a healthy gut microbiota is absolutely essential for good health. And more and more research is showing just how it can affect not only our digestion, but also our immune system, and even our mood.

What do I need to know? – Medical Conditions

Of course, you should read the label of any products you take, and take them as directed, especially if they’re not specifically recommended for you by your health care practitioner who knows your history.  Here are two critical things to be aware of:

1 – Digestive enzymes that break down carbohydrates into sugars are not recommended for diabetics, or pregnant/breastfeeding women.  This is because taking them breaks down more carbohydrates into sugars than your body normally would; so, anyone at risk of blood sugar issues should take caution.

2 – When it comes to enzymes that break down proteins into amino acids, there are a few people who should avoid them because of potential interactions. That is if you have an ulcer, or are taking blood-thinners or anti-inflammatories, or if you’re having surgery.  The reason is because the digestive enzymes that break down protein are thought to cause or worsen ulcers, as well as have the ability to “thin” the blood and prevent normal clotting.

What do I need to know? – Possible Side Effects  

Using digestive enzyme supplements for a prolonged period of time may well justify an appointment with a knowledgeable practitioner. There may be strategies other than daily supplementation that can serve you better (your diet being the biggest factor).

If you find that your symptoms get worse, or even if they don’t get better, you should probably stop using them.

Allergies are always a possibility, so if you know or suspect you’re allergic, then you should avoid them.

Before considering a digestive enzyme supplement

You shouldn’t just jump to supplementing with digestive enzymes without a proper diagnosis, or trying a few strategies first.  My first recommendation for digestive distress would be to relax more, eat slower, and chew more thoroughly. This helps to break down food and can put less stress on your digestive tract.

The second step would be to try eliminating certain troublesome foods from your diet (dairy & gluten, for example) and see if that helps.

Conclusion:

While many supplements are safe products, they’re not all for everyone.

I recommend that you:

  • Read your labels carefully (who should take them, how to take them, when to stop taking them).
  • If you have a medical condition or are taking medications speak with your doctor or pharmacist.
  • If you want expert advice on whether a specific supplement is for you, speak with a qualified health care practitioner.

Recipe (food containing bromelain & papain): Tropical (digestive) smoothie

Tropical smoothie

Serves 1

1 cup pineapple, diced

1 cup papaya, diced

1 banana, chopped

1 cup coconut milk

ice if desired

Put all ingredients(except ice) into the blender and blend. Add ice if desired.  Serve & enjoy!

Tip: The levels of enzymes in whole pineapple and papaya aren’t as concentrated as taking them in a supplement; so if you’re not allergic to these delicious fruits, you can try this smoothie.

References:

https://www.dietvsdisease.org/digestive-enzyme-supplements/

http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/monoReq.do?id=514&lang=eng

http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/monoReq.do?id=516&lang=eng

http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/monoReq.do?id=196&lang=eng

http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/monoReq.do?id=508&lang=eng

http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/monoReq.do?id=515&lang=eng

Natural Medicines Database, Bromelain, Papain, Retrieved January 21, 2017 from https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com

7 Tips To Improve Health By Eating Less Sugar

Are you still recovering from Easter/Mother’s Day/B-Day… “Sugar Highs” and trying to get back on track with a healthier approach to eating?
44437664 - supermarket shelvesOver the past few decades, we’ve seen an onslaught of sugary products on the grocery store shelves with fiber frequently falling into the background. This is a deadly combination, especially if you’re trying to adopt habits to improve your health and boost longevity.
But not to despair -there’s good news after all!
It is never too late to take control of your health by eliminating or greatly reducing the amount of added sugar in your daily diet.
However, it is a tough habit to break, no matter how determined you might be to get sugar under control. Here are some helpful hints to use in your battle against excessive sugar in your diet:
  1. Make it a habit to drink plain water versus sugary sodas, sports drinks, or energy drinks. There are many benefits of drinking lots of water during the day, and water is calorie and sugar free.
  2. Load up on healthy snacks that quench your sweet tooth, like strawberries, blueberries, bananas, or apples. Sugar that is naturally occurring in fruit is not bad for us.
  3. Learn how to spot all the various names for sweeteners on food packaging and limit your intake to no more than 25 grams of sugar per day. Any ingredients that end in “ose” are code for chemical sweeteners, such as dextrose, glucose, maltose, and fructose.
  4. Limit all simple carbohydrates in your diet, including baked goods. Eat whole grains, sprouted grain breads and brown rice instead of white rice and potatoes that immediately convert to sugar in the bloodstream.
  5. Beware of foods labeled non-fat or fat-free. Fat is often replaced with sugars, resulting in a high calorie count.
  6. Instead of drinking fruit juice, just eat the fruit itself and gain the benefit of fiber. It’s best to buy fresh, but if you do buy canned fruit, make sure it’s packed in its own juice (not syrup) and buy only unsweetened applesauce.  You can also infuse filtered water with sliced citrus, cucumbers, herbs, berries or any fresh fruit to make your water more interesting.
  7. To help slow down the release of glucose in your system, as well as keep you feeling full, eat more lean protein, such as turkey and fish, and healthy fats, like avocado, nuts, and seeds. This will help reduce sugar cravings.
With so much evidence of the dangers sugar poses to our health and well-being, isn’t it time to rein in your sugar consumption?
Boost your overall health, lose some pounds, and just feel better by making some simple changes in your eating habits.
 Are you interested in kicking sugar for good or developing your own personalized wellness plan? Get in touch with me! Comment on this post or email me: SolCoach@MarisolBallaro.com to set up your complimentary discover session.
Yours in health,
Coach Marisol
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