5 Foods That Could Be Messing With Your Gut

History and common sense say we should always trust our gut—but in order to do so, we need it to be functioning at its best.

The consensus among nutrition and medical experts is that our gut health can affect our overall well-being for better or worse. “The health of the gastrointestinal tract is extremely important because the gut contains a majority of the immune system, with just a single layer of cells lining it,” says Maureen Leonard, M.D., clinical director for the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment. “This single layer of cells separates the immune system from the many environmental exposures we ingest.”

Since our intestines filter good things (like nutrients) from bad things (like toxins), our gut is one of our body’s first lines of defense against the outside world, according to Stephanie Dunne, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., I.F.N.C.P.

Researchers still have much to learn about our gut, but here’s what we do know: The bacteria that live in our gut (which are often called the ‘microbiome’) contribute to our overall health and may play a role in the development of disease, our mood, and our weight, Dunne says. Everyone’s gut is different, depending on a person’s individual biology, environment, medical history, medication use, and diet, explains Leonard. This means we all deal with toxins in different ways, and we each have different levels of intestinal permeability (a measure of how easily materials can pass through the cells lining our gut and into our body), says Leonard.

Related: The Term ‘Leaky Gut’ Is All Over The Internet—But What Exactly Is It?

And though our diet alone doesn’t determine the fate of our gut health, nutrition is an important part of keeping our microbiome strong, diverse (the more strains of good bacteria the better!), and able to ward off inflammation. “Lifestyle choices, stress management, and nutrition are all pieces of the puzzle, and none of them can be ignored if we really want a happy digestive tract,” Dunne says.

Is your grub holding back your gut health? Read on to learn what foods to cut back on (and what to eat instead) to keep your insides as happy as possible.

As much as those refined carbohydrates and sweets tempt our taste buds, they are less-than-ideal food for the good microorganisms that live in our gut. Our relationship with these good gut bugs works like this: We feed them, and, in turn, they provide us with vitamin K2 and short-chain fatty acids, according to Dunne. The good gut bugs feed on complex carbohydrates and their fiber, while the not-so-friendly bacteria in our gut feed on refined carbs and sugar. The stronger our little colony of healthy bacteria—and the weaker the colony of bad guys—the better our gut is able to keep us regular and healthy.

“By reducing the intake of refined carbs and increasing our intake of fiber, we are feeding the good guys and starving the bad guys,” Dunne says. “We, in turn, reap the benefit of having more good guys living in our gut.” So by swapping sugar and refined carbs like white breads or pastas for complex, whole-food sources like fiber-rich beans, whole grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables, we give our healthy bacteria the food it needs, says Maggie Moon, M.S., R.D.N., author of The MIND Diet.

Knocking back cocktails is a surefire way to diminish our gut health, according to Ana Johnson, M.S., R.D., C.D.E. “Alcohol is inflammatory, and causes all of your body systems to become inflamed, including your digestive system,” she says. Ever experienced symptoms like gas, bloating, diarrhea, or even acid reflux or heartburn after drinking? Yep, there’s your evidence. Alcohol can also make conditions like irritable bowel syndrome worse—and it can even lead to gastritis (inflammation of the lining of the stomach.)

The only way to truly prevent this damage is to ditch your cocktail for a mocktail. Alcohol is a toxin, and the most effective way to reverse its effects on your body is to stop putting it into your system, says Johnson. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet (more on that later), managing stress, and getting enough sleep will help counteract the effects of alcohol, but can’t completely cancel them out, she says.

Sadly, all alcohol—from tequila to craft beer—is equally damaging. Johnson recommends avoiding alcohol as much as possible, and limiting yourself to one (for women) or two (for men) drinks when you do imbibe.

Don’t freak out. We’re not about to say everyone and their mother needs to go gluten-free.

When we eat gluten (the type of proteins found in grains like wheat), our body releases a protein called zonulin, which creates spaces between the intestinal cells. When these spaces are too large, substances that otherwise wouldn’t be able to fit through these spaces are able to pass into our body.

“Even though everyone releases zonulin, some people release more of it and are slower to close up these spaces that are formed,” she says. That’s why some people can eat gluten without issue, while others find it leads to symptoms like diarrhea, cramping, or swelling.

Blood tests can help determine if you have celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder in which gluten damages the small intestine), but won’t necessarily flag less severe sensitivities, which can manifest as symptoms like headaches, joint pain, or brain fogginess, Dunne says. If you suspect you have a gluten issue, work with a dietitian to cut out gluten-containing foods for about three weeks. At the end of the three-week period, you’ll eat something with gluten in it and gauge your body’s reaction.

If gluten is an issue for you, you may need to cut back on gluten-containing foods (like anything made with wheat) or nix them completely, says Dunne. From there, focus on incorporating foods and nutrients that support your gut health, like omega-3 fatty acids (found in flax seeds, walnuts, fatty fish, chia seeds, soybeans, and shrimp), vitamins A and C (found in carrots and sweet potatoes, and kale and broccoli, respectively), and zinc (found in spinach and kidney beans).

Related: All The Things You Didn’t Know Omega-3s Could Do For Your Health

Research suggests omega-3s may support the gut’s barrier function, while vitamin A helps regulate the gut’s immune cells, Dunne says. Meanwhile, vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and zinc is necessary for cell division, which is crucial for the turnover of cells in your gut.

Eating meat doesn’t automatically lead to an unhappy gut, but focusing less on animal-based foods and more on plant-based foods seems to be more gut-friendly, says Moon. “That doesn’t mean no steak ever; it just means more plants more often,” she says. Not convinced? Research—like this study, published in Cell Metabolism—has associated eating plant proteins with a lower mortality risk than eating animal proteins.

What makes plant foods so gut-friendly? Many vegetables, fruits, and grains contain indigestible fiber called prebiotics, according to NYC-based nutritionist Cara Anselmo, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N. These prebiotics act as food for the good bacteria, called probiotics, that live in our gut. And though many of us think of dairy foods like yogurt and kefir as the ultimate food sources of those probiotics, they’re also found in fermented plant foods like kimchi and tempeh.

Related: Support your good bacteria with a probiotic supplement.

To up your diet’s plant power, base your plate in whole, fresh fruits and veggies and then add whole grains like barley, wheat berries, or quinoa. To make sure plant-based meals pack enough protein, incorporate sources like beans, tofu, nuts, and seeds frequently, says Anselmo. (Those whole grains provide some protein, too, BTW.)

If you’re a carnivore at heart, pick fish or poultry over red meat, and avoid processed meat, she says. (While researchers are still figuring out the relationship between specific foods and our gut, excess consumption of processed meats has been linked to colorectal cancer, according to the World Health Organization.)

Many of the processed foods we eat contain additives and other hard-to-identify ingredients that may negatively impact our gut health. The average American diet, which is high in sugar, fat, refined foods, and emulsifiers, is linked with lower microbial diversity and inflammation, says Boston-based dietitian Kate Scarlata, R.D.N. And these two health factors are commonly associated with health problems like cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease, she says.

Consider emulsifiers, for example. (You’re probably wondering what they are, but you’ve probably eaten something that contains them today.) These common additives—lecithin and carrageenan are two you’ve likely seen—are used to stabilize processed foods, like dairy-free milks and chocolate bars. Though more human study is needed, an animal study published in Nature found that ingesting emulsifiers decreased the diversity of mice’s microbiomes, triggered inflammation in the gut, and contributed to the breakdown of the protective mucus that lines the gut wall.

The best way to guarantee your eats won’t hurt your gut health is to keep processed foods off the menu as much as possible. “Balance your plate with whole grains, lean protein, healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts, seeds, and a wide array of colorful produce,” says Scarlata.

Pin this handy infographic and keep your grub gut-friendly:

8 Tips For Picking The Healthiest Packaged Foods Possible

We’ve all been told to eat lots of whole foods—like fruits, veggies, meat, poultry, and dairy—and to watch our intake of processed foods. But let’s be serious: Most of us aren’t about to blend up our own mayo. Avoiding supermarket aisles stocked with jars, bag, cans, and boxes just isn’t always doable.

When we buy food from a bag, box, or jar, it can be tricky to tell just how healthy (or unhealthy) it really is. After all, plenty of packaged foods contain terrifyingly long lists of ingredients, which often include preservatives and additives we don’t recognize and can’t pronounce. (What the heck is ‘dextrin,’ anyway?) Not to mention, many packaged foods come with a boatload of extra calories—on top of added sugars, fats, and sodium, says Toby Amidor, M.S., R.D.N.

To save you from spending 20 minutes trying to pick between two jars of tomato sauce or boxes of crackers, we asked dietitians for their supermarket navigation tips.

1. Check the sugar content.

Natural sugars that are found in whole foods like fruit and dairy have a place in a healthy diet, but sugars added to many packaged foods and drinks can lead to weight gain and health concerns, , says Amidor. So how much sugar a food contains—and whether it’s naturally-occurring or added—is something you’ll want to look at.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends limiting added sugars to just five percent of our total daily calories, which is 100 calories or 25 grams. So if a food contains more than 10 grams (or 40 calories) of added sugar per serving, it should probably be a no-go, Amidor says.

And don’t expect that added sugar to reveal itself willingly in the ingredient list: “Added sugars can show up on food and drink labels under names like anhydrous dextrose, brown sugar, cane crystals, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, crystal dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose sweetener, fruit juice concentrates, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, liquid fructose, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, pancake syrup, raw sugar, sugar, syrup and white sugar,” says Amidor. Yikes.

Related: Is Sugar Really All That Bad For You?

That said, you don’t necessarily have to nix a food because it contains a little added sugar. If the other ingredients are simple and offer health benefits like fiber or other nutrients, you can cut yourself some slack.

2. Feel out the fat.

One of the reasons packaged snacks can be so dang addicting: They contain added fat for enhanced flavor, says Amidor.

And while fat can be healthy (think of the unsaturated fats in avocados, nuts, and olive oil), many packaged foods are higher in saturated fats and contain trans fats.

Trans, or ‘hydrogenated’ fats have been linked to heart disease and should be avoided as much as possible, says Amidor. Meanwhile, the USDA 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting saturated fat to 10 percent or less of your daily calories, since excess consumption can affect cholesterol, she says.

So when you’re deciding between two packaged foods, compare the amounts of saturated fat per serving and go with the product that has less. Stay away from anything that contains 15 percent of your total daily allotment of saturated fat, Amidor suggests.

3. Beware insane amounts of salt.

The recommended daily max for sodium is 2,300 milligrams, or about one teaspoon of salt, but many packaged foods are bursting with the stuff, sometimes packing half your daily allowance in one serving.

Ideally, though, you want somewhere around 200 milligrams of sodium max per serving, says Benjamin White, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., L.D.N. So look for foods labeled ‘low-sodium’ or ‘no salt added’ and add flavor with herbs and spices at home.

4. Count the ingredients.

To keep your eats as clean as possible, pick packaged foods that contain as few ingredients as possible, says White. A food with few ingredients is less processed, and often healthier, than one with a long laundry list, he says.

And, since ingredients are listed in order of the amount contained in the food (high to low), looking at the first three can tell you a lot about what you’re eating, White adds. If one of the food’s first three ingredients is a sweetener, non-whole-grain flour, or oil, it’s probably not a great choice.

5. Do some quick nutrient math.

To make our snacks and meals as filling and waistline-friendly as possible, make sure they pack two things: fiber and protein. (You generally want at least three grams of fiber and seven grams of protein, White says.)

To figure out if a packaged food has enough of this good stuff to outweigh the bad stuff that may also be lurking, add up the grams of protein and fiber on the Nutrition Facts. Then add up the grams of total fat and sugar. If the total grams of protein and fiber are higher than the total grams of fat and sugar, you’re good to go, White says.

6. Look for added nutrients.

According to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, there are four nutrients in particular that Americans fall short on: vitamin D, calcium, fiber, and potassium. (Vitamin D, calcium, and potassium are found in milk and many dairy products, while potassium and fiber can be found in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, according to Amidor.)

Related: 9 Nutrients You May Be Short On If You Don’t Eat Dairy

But since so many of us miss out on these four nutrients, they’re often added to packaged foods (like breakfast cereal) to help us get our fill. So if a food packs a boatload of these important nutrients despite having some rather unappealing qualities—like some added sugar—it might still be worth eating, she says. Just make sure the food provides at least 10 to 19 percent of your daily value of one or more of these nutrients per serving.

7. Cut out artificial colors and flavors.

You’ll want to avoid as much artificial anything as possible, and nixing artificial colors and flavors is a good place to start. “Color additives are used for aesthetic purposes, and do not provide any nutritional value to the food,” says Amidor. The same goes for artificial flavors. So go ahead and leave that cupcake icing colored with ‘blue number whatever’ or artificially-flavored nacho chips on the shelf.

8. When in doubt, use an app.

If you just can’t decide whether to put a product in your cart or leave it on the shelf, let your phone do the thinking for you. An app like the Environmental Working Group’s Food Scores, gives you quick feedback on the overall quality of a food, says White. “The app gives a rating for thousands of foods based on their nutritional value, ingredients of concern (like additives), and the extent to which they’re processed,” he says. The closer to a rating of ‘1,’ the more worthy the food.

Related: Check out a selection of packaged staples and snacks that keep your health in mind.

A Newbie’s Guide To Juicing

Sure, you’ve probably picked up a delicious post-workout juice before, courtesy of your local juicer or fancy gym snack shop. But if you’re looking to get some extra nutrients into your diet by juicing on the reg—without the steep price tag—you can easily start juicing at home on your own. Here’s everything you need to know to get started.

Chugging juice might be super-popular way to get a healthy between-meal snack in, but it’s also considered a type of fasting and an ancient spiritual practice, according to holistic health nutritionist Valentina Olivadese.

“During juicing, the mind and body have a chance to disconnect from the daily work of digestion,” Olivadese says. “The juice extracted from fruits and vegetables is a powerhouse of vitamins, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that strengthens the immune system, helps heal physical and emotional wounds, and fights inflammation.”

But why drink your fruits and veggies instead of just munching on an apple? There is no evidence to suggest that juicing is better than consuming a whole fruit, but proponents believe that juicing helps your body absorb nutrients better by limiting the amount of fiber your body has to process. (Whole fruits are loaded with fiber and juicing strips the fruits and veggies of it.)

Related: I Tried Clean Eating For A Week—And It Wasn’t Actually Awful

What’s more, making your own juice allows you to have more control over the quality of what you will be drinking—from the actual ingredients themselves (including organic versus not) to the freshness of each fruit or veggie. Or, if you’re not into eating your greens, juicing is a good way to get them into your diet with a little help from sweet, not-so-green flavor enhancers.

Pro-tip: “Exposure to air causes oxidation and it’s always best to drink the juice ideally within a few minutes or at the latest by the end of the day,” explains Olivadese. “Store-bought juices are often purchased several days after production and are therefore of lower quality.” This goes for the pre-bottled stuff and even juices made on the spot (with pre-mixed ingredients or not-so-fresh fruits).

What type of foods can you juice?

Juices can be made from all kinds of fruits and vegetables, so feel free to try out the produce you like the most when you start making juice. Some of the most popular fruits for juicing include citrus fruits, apples, pears, mangoes, grapes and melons, according to Olivadese.

Many vegetables also make for a nutrient-dense juice, like celery, cucumbers, leafy greens (especially spinach!), beets, and carrots. Herbs make a great addition to juice when used in small quantities—basil, mint, and ginger are some favorites among seasoned juicers, says Olivadese.

Before You Juice

No matter what type of produce you select for your juice, make sure everything is washed before you put it through the juicer.

And you’ll need a lot of produce—you can expect to need a pound to a pound and a half of produce to make a 20-ounce serving of juice (you’ll be left with the pulp). Feel wasteful throwing away all that extra pulp? Vegetarian Times offers plenty of ways to use it up healthfully, such as blending it into a smoothie for fiber, adding it to a soup, making pulp popsicles, using it for a broth, making tea with it, or adding it to foods for thickening.

A Word of Warning

If you’re juicing to add healthful foods to your diet, you can get a full day’s worth of fruit and veggies in one juice. However, if you plan to commit to a juice fast for detox purposes, there are a few things you should expect, says Olivadese. Juicing for fasting purposes could cause some common side effects, including hunger, headaches, fatigue, dizziness or irritability. Check with your healthcare provider before embarking on this sort of dietary adjustment.

Related: Shop juicers and blenders. 

“Side effects of juicing are usually worse in the first 24 to 48 hours,” she explains. “Listen to your body. Energy levels vary during a cleanse, ranging from feeling very energized to very tired.”

Consuming only juice is intended as a short practice and shouldn’t be done for extended periods of time. If you plan to complete a juice fast, Olivadese suggests taking time to ease your body into it by eating light meals (think: whole fruit, steamed vegetables, or a salad) the day before you begin. Once you begin your fast, it shouldn’t last more than 72 hours unless you have consulted with a doctor first. You should ease your body back into a typical diet by beginning with light meals.

What about weight loss? “Don’t juice for weight loss or as a long-term diet,” Olivadese adds. “Juicing is not a diet and its purpose is not to lose weight.” Juices lack in several essential nutrients for the body—primarily protein and fats.

Ready to Juice?

Having a few tried and true combinations on hand sure can lessen feelings of overwhelm when you first try your hand at juicing. Olivadese recommends that all new juicers find a basic fruit juice and green juice they love to make on a regular basis (see Olivadese’s favorites below). Plus, you need a reliable juicer—check out the Omega juicer. 

 

6 Delicious Ways To Eat Kefir (Plus How To Pronounce It)

Fermented foods have never been trendier. And while you’ve probably eaten your fair share of Greek yogurt and sipped on some kombucha, I’m willing to bet there’s one fermented food you’ve never tried (or were even able to pronounce): kefir.

For the record, it’s pronounced kuh-FEER.

Kefir is a milk drink cultured with yeast and bacteria. Like yogurt, kefir contains protein, calcium, B vitamins, potassium, and probiotics—you know, those good bacteria that support your gut health. But while you eat yogurt with a spoon, you can drink kefir—it’s just a little thicker than regular milk. It’s typically made with cow’s milk, but you can also find non-dairy alternatives made with almond milk, coconut milk, or rice milk. A cup of plain kefir is tart, and weighs in at around 110 calories, 11 grams of protein, 12 grams of carbohydrates, 12 grams of sugar, and two grams of fat per cup.

Stick to the plain stuff to avoid the added sugar in flavored varieties. (Some have 15 grams of added sugar per cup.) If your taste buds really can’t deal with the tartness, mix half a cup of plain kefir with half a cup of a flavored one—and choose the brand with the least sugar.

While a tall glass of kefir makes for a good breakfast or late-afternoon snack, it can do so much more! Here are six delicious, nutritionist-approved ways to use it:

1. Whip up homemade salad dressing.

We all love creamy dressings, but they’re often high in fat and devoid of protein—unless you use kefir as your base. I like to add mustard, horseradish sauce, a spoon of balsamic glaze, and spices to plain kefir for a dressing that bursts with flavor.

photo: Bonnie Taub-Dix

2. Bake sweet potato muffins.

Whether it’s fall or not, these muffins are a flavorful pick-me-up and a great after-school snack. Just bake up a few sweet potatoes—which are a great source of vitamin A and provide fiber—and you’ve got the makings of a delicious treat. Plus, the kefir adds some protein and a heavenly texture to this recipe. These muffins freeze well and pair perfectly with a dollop of cottage or ricotta cheese for an extra protein bump.

3. Add it to pancake or waffle batter.

Starting the morning with a warm stack of pancakes or waffles? Swap the buttermilk in the recipe out for kefir to nix some fat and gain some protein.

photo: Samina Qureshi

4. Blend up a smoothie.

According to Samina Qureshi R.D.N., L.D., of Wholesome Start, LLC, a solid smoothie needs five things: a liquid base, nutrients, protein, flavor, and a natural sweetener. And good ‘ole kefir covers three of the five, with its creamy texture and the protein and nutrients it provides. Qureshi’s berry kefir smoothie combines plain kefir, frozen berries, frozen banana, mixed greens, nut butter, and chia seeds for a balanced smoothie that makes a great snack, on-the-go meal, or post-workout fuel.

photo: Jessica Levinson

Or, keep things simple by blending plain kefir with frozen strawberries, lemon juice, and honey, for a sweet and easy snack. This smoothie, from Jessica Levinson, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., founder of Small Bites by Jessica provides vitamin C, fiber, and antioxidants. It’s a good starter smoothie for those a little intimidated by kefir’s tart flavor.

Related: Is That Smoothie Bowl As Healthy As It Seems?

photo: United Dairy Industry Association

If you’re feeling adventurous, mix up your flavors and add a little spice with a kefir-based pumpkin pie smoothie. All you need is plain kefir, ice, canned pumpkin puree, almond butter, pumpkin pie spice, and maple syrup or honey to whip up a drink that’s much more satisfying than the average pumpkin spice latte. In addition to a number of nutrients from the kefir, you’ll get fiber, potassium, and vitamin C from the pumpkin, according to Lanier Dabruzzi, M.S., R.D., L.D., of the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association.

photo: Liz Weiss

5. Soak some overnight oats.

Overnight oats starring kefir are a convenient make-ahead breakfast. Stash a simple combo of kefir, rolled oats, fruit, and chia seeds in the fridge overnight, and add toppings in the morning. These strawberry peanut overnight oats from Liz Weiss, M.S., R.D.N., taste like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and provide seven grams of fiber and 16 grams of protein.

6. Bake, well, anything.

You can swap kefir in for milk, cream, or yogurt in pretty much any baking recipe, whether it’s for bread or cupcakes. Why not treat yourself to some extra protein and probiotics?

Related: Check out a number of flours, sweeteners, and more for healthy baking.

Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., C.D.N., is an award-winning author, spokesperson, speaker, consultant, and owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC. She has been featured on TV, radio, and print, as well as in digital media, including Everyday HealthBetter Homes & GardensWomen’s Health, and U.S. News & World Report. She is a recipient of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Media Excellence Award.

What You Should Know About Probiotic Foods Before Chowing Down

When you think of bacteria, your mind probably jumps right to germs and infections—but there’s more to these microorganisms than their bad reputation.

We have billions of bacteria living in our guts, and they don’t all lead to illness or disease. In fact, some of them are straight up good for us. “The bugs that colonize us are not just waste; they’re hugely important to our health,” says Neil Stollman, M.D., chairman of the Division of Gastroenterology at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland, CA.

The good microorganisms in our digestive systems are called probiotics. Research suggests these bacteria may bolster our immune systems, keep us regular on the toilet, and even support our blood pressure and cholesterol, says Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N. The good bacteria hype is so real that about four million adults in the U.S. reported using probiotics in the past 30 days, according to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey.

Though many people take probiotic supplements, the bacteria are also found in a number of fermented foods and drinks, like yogurt and kombucha. But when it comes to these bacteria-packing eats, there are still a lot of questions out there: Which probiotic foods should you eat? Are all probiotic foods alike?

Read on to clear up some of your probiotic food confusion and get the most bacteria benefits from your diet.

When you’re looking to get a rich dose of probiotics from your grub, you’ll turn to fermented foods like sauerkraut, miso soup, tempeh, kimchi, kombucha, and yogurt. But not all of these foods are created equally.

“Not every single yogurt and sauerkraut contains probiotics,” says Gorin. Make sure a brand packs the good stuff by checking the label or visiting the company’s website for more information, she says. For instance, a yogurt containing probiotics will generally list “live active cultures” on the label. Some probiotic foods may even list the specific bacteria in them, the two most common being Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. And when shopping for sauerkraut, specifically, look for an unpasteurized variety, since the pasteurization process can actually kill off probiotics, Gorin says.

From there, just how much good bacteria your yogurt or kombucha packs may vary quite a bit. “It’s hard to say for sure how many probiotics a specific food contains,” says Ryan D. Andrews, M.S., M.A., R.D., coach at Precision Nutrition and author of A Guide to Plant-Based Eating. That’s because a number of variables—like the strains of bacteria used in the food, how long it’s been fermenting for, and the temperature it’s been stored at—can determine a food’s total probiotic count, he says.

The good news: “In the naturally fermented food world, stuff like sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, tempeh, miso, and so forth all seem to be beneficial for health on some level, no matter the specific level of probiotics they contain,” he says. So, though there’s no one probiotic-packed food to rule them all, that sauerkraut or yogurt provides some benefit. (Just check that label!)

Though probiotics sure seem to be great for our gut, there is no ideal, universal recommendation for probiotic intake that has been backed by science yet, says Satish Rao, M.D., Ph.D., founding director of Augusta University’s Digestive Health Center. Researchers are still pinning down the specific benefits of individual types of bacteria.

Related: I Drank Kombucha Every Day For 2 Weeks—Here’s What My Gut Had To Say

Still, doctors take a number of factors—like whether you have ongoing stomach issues, are taking antibiotics, or are just an average person looking to maintain a healthy gut—into consideration when recommending probiotic foods or dosages of probiotic supplements, Rao says.

That said, if you’re healthy and want to supplement your diet with good bacteria, eating one or two servings of fermented foods daily is great for your overall digestion and colon health, he says. If you’re turning to probiotics because you’re having stomach issues, though, consult with your doctor first, since probiotics may not be the solution for whatever underlying issue you’re dealing with.

Given probiotics’ supreme popularity these days, companies are adding them to anything from frozen burritos to protein powder to breakfast cereal in order to increase their value. But the fact that a food contains probiotics doesn’t necessarily make it worth eating.

“Always look at the nutritional make-up of the food containing probiotics,” says Gorin. At the end of the day, brownies and ice cream that contain probiotics are still brownies and ice cream, and likely loaded with excess calories and sugar, both of which can lead to weight gain and other health problems when you eat too much, too often. Ask yourself: Would you consider this food healthy if there weren’t probiotics in it?

If you’re truly looking for a boost in good bacteria, stick with naturally-fermented foods, which are loaded with other nutritional perks like vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein, says Andrews.

Sure, naturally probiotic-packed foods offer health benefits—but you won’t fully reap them if you’re eating a food that doesn’t agree with your system. Yep, we’re talking about dairy here.

Take kefir, for instance. This drinkable, yogurt-like food is loaded with probiotics, calcium, and magnesium, but if you’re lactose intolerant it’s probably going to cause discomfort like bloating, gas, or diarrhea, says Stollman. It’s not worth it to suffer through a slew of tummy symptoms in the name of probiotics!

Related: Take a lactase enzyme to help your body break down dairy.

If you find that your stomach is sensitive to dairy, just stick with dairy-free probiotic foods. Sip on kombucha, sauté some tempeh, or top the night’s protein with a spoonful of kraut. (If you’re really hung up on the kefir thing, there are brands out there made from coconut milk, says Stollman.)

While eating probiotic-rich foods has shown promise, a diet rich in a wide variety of nutrients is just as important for maintaining the countless types of healthy bacteria in your gut, says Stollman.

“Eating a diversity of fiber-rich foods, plant-based foods, and fermented foods, is probably the best way to fortify your biome,” he says. Perhaps the most important factor here is fiber, which acts as food for the probiotics in your gut. According to a review published in Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease, eating fiber can actually boost the number of probiotics in your body. So for optimal gut health, probiotic-containing foods should be just a part of an overall healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

On the flip side, an unhealthy diet loaded with sugars and processed foods may actually negatively impact your gut health and microbiome, Stollman adds. Case in point: A study published in Nature suggests that drinking diet soda may actually mess with your gut bacteria so much that it could raise your risk for metabolic diseases like type 2 diabetes. So when it comes to making your gut microbiome happy, stick to that whole ‘let food be thy medicine’ thing.

Related: Give your gut an extra boost with a probiotic supplement. 

Raise Your Hand If You Have Trouble Digesting Dairy

There’s a pretty good chance you know the feeling: a threatening rumble in your gut that comes after an extra scoop of ice cream or a particularly milky latte. With it begins your torturous wait for tummy issues like bloating, gas, and gotta-go sprints to the bathroom to subside. And every time you’re left wondering whether your belly’s reaction to dairy means you’ve become a little (or a lot) lactose intolerant.

The likely answer? Well, probably, considering more than two thirds of people worldwide develop some degree of lactose intolerance in their lifetime, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH).

Here’s how it happens: Dairy contains a sugar molecule called lactose that needs to be broken down in your digestive system by an enzyme called lactase, explains Niket Sonpal, M.D., gastroenterology fellow at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. When you don’t have enough lactase enzymes in your system, you can’t digest that lactose—and boom, you’re lactose intolerant. “[That lactose] is then taken up by the bacteria in the gut, which causes it to kind of ferment and produce a lot of gas,” Sonpal says.

Some people are born without any ability to produce lactase enzymes, so they spend their entire lives lactose intolerant, says Sonpal. (A lifetime without Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby? Let’s all take a minute to pray for those unfortunate souls.) But what about the adults who suddenly find themselves struggling with dairy?

Basically, everyone’s production of the lactase enzyme declines over time—but how much it declines varies from person to person. “Depending on their genetic makeup, lifestyle, and other factors, everyone’s individual lactose intolerance is different,” says Sonpal. Some people may lose such an inconsequential amount of lactase that they can continue to enjoy dairy without problems for their entire lives, while others may lose so much that even a splash of half-and-half sends their tummy into panic mode.

To learn your true level of lactose intolerance, you can take a quick test at your doc’s office. You’ll consume some dairy and then breathe into a special bag that can measure your ability to digest the lactose you consumed based on the particles in your breath.

But you can also get a general idea of whether dairy is an issue for you by running a little experiment at home, which Sonpal dubs “Lactose and Chill.” Simply eat a dairy-heavy meal (get some cheese and a glass of milk in there) for dinner one night and monitor how you feel. The next night, eat a dairy-free meal and compare your gut reactions (heh).

Quick note: If both meals wreak havoc on your stomach, your issue may be a condition like irritable bowel syndrome, not lactose intolerance, Sonpal says. (People with IBS deal with frequent digestive distress involving anything from bloating to constipation to diarrhea.)

Related: 4 Possible Reasons Why Your Stomach Is Killing You All The Time

But if going ham on dairy does, in fact, leave you gassy, uncomfortable, or running to the bathroom, it’s time to change your diet, says says Keri Gans, R.D.N., author of The Small Change Diet.

“Some people, even with lactose intolerance, can tolerate small amounts of lactose,” she says. So if your belly symptoms weren’t too terrible, you might be okay to enjoy hard cheeses like cheddar (which are naturally lower in lactose), or a bit of milk in your coffee.

But if a glass of milk messes you up bad, you’re best off eliminating dairy from your diet completely. You’ll just need to make sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D, the two primary nutrients you miss out on without dairy in your life, Gans says. Look for plant-based milks that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and load up on green leafy vegetables, she suggests. (You may also want to consider a supplement to make sure you’re getting enough of these bone-supporting nutrients.)

Related: Check out a number of supplements to support your bones.

When you just can’t avoid dairy (we all need pizza sometimes!), you can try taking a lactose supplement before your meal to help your body deal.

9 Quick Ways To Crush Your Cravings

Cupcakes! You suddenly started thinking about their sweet, frosty goodness and now you want—no, you need—to have one. But seeing as you had a satisfying lunch and don’t make a habit of eating sugary snacks every day, you can’t help but wonder how this torturous temptation popped into your mind. Even more pressing: How do you get it out?

“First and foremost, be mindful of your why,” says Erin Clifford, J.D., a Certified Holistic Health Coach. “Are you really hungry or is it something emotional? Are you lonely? Bored? Stressed? Pay attention to your patterns and figure out an alternative plan for when your cravings hit.”

We all know that unnecessary constant snacking (a snack once in a while is totally normal and fine!) interferes with your weight loss or weight-maintenance goals, but it also makes you sluggish and irritable, which, in turn, sets up a never-ending cycle of even more cravings.

Related: Shop appetite-control products. 

Since the trick is to avoid your triggers and recognize when you’re teetering on the edge, these tips, straight from Clifford’s playbook, can help you shift your focus away from those midday cupcake cravings.

1. Stop the Cycle

If you always reach for a bag of cookies after a stressful day at work, call a friend and hit up a yoga class instead. Redirect the energy you’re giving your craving toward something positive. Once you do the work, you’re less likely to destroy it by bingeing on junk that rewinds your progress.

2. Change Your Environment

If you’re bingeing on caramel-coated popcorn while you’re Netflix-and-chilling, get off the couch, pop a Crave Crush lozenge (which blocks sweet taste receptors), and go take your dog for a walk. If you give yourself a time out, the cravings will usually subside.

3. Aim for Satiety

Including protein at every meal (lean meat, beans, eggs, nuts, yogurt, etc.) will boost your energy levels and keep you feeling satisfied—which should keep your cravings at bay. According to the Nutrition Journal, high-protein snacks improve appetite control and satiety, and reduce subsequent food intake.

What triggers a craving, anyway? Check out our Science of Cravings video:

 

4. Meal Frequency

Eating smaller meals more frequently was related to lower body mass index (BMI) and maintenance of weight loss, according to a study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Not only will this approach to eating stabilize blood-sugar levels and keep your energy levels on track, it’ll leave you less likely to give into your cravings.

5. Don’t Skip Meals

Set yourself up for success by sticking to regular meal times. And always have breakfast (you’ll want to reach for a protein-packed morning meal like overnight oats, a goat cheese frittata, or a banana with almond butter).

6. Stay Hydrated

Next time a big craving hits, try drinking a large glass of water. Many times when we think we’re hungry, we’re actually simply thirsty, according to the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

A word to the wise: We’re talking about regular ol’ water here—sugary liquid calories from sodas, juices, lattes, sports drinks, or iced teas will spike your insulin and blood sugar levels, causing cravings. Not into plain H20? Add fruit, herbs, or ginger for a special kick. Or, drink tea, unsweetened.

Related: Shop yummy electrolyte fizz and kick your water up a notch.

Aim for 64 ounces (or 1900 milliliters) of water per day.

7. MEDITATE And Breathe Deeply

When you’re feeling the urge to plow through a bag of potato chips, take 10 minutes to center your mind and induce a feeling of calm. Or focus on your breathing, explains Clifford, in the ratio 1-4-2 (inhale for eight seconds, hold for 32 seconds, exhale for 16 seconds). Many devices and apps, like Fitbit and Breathe, have programs to help you meditate or count. Furthermore, according to the Mayo Clinic, practicing mindful eating and remembering that food is actually fuel (and not just fun, tasty stuff) can help prevent overeating.

8. Get Your ZZZs

If you don’t get seven to nine hours of sleep per night, you might feel the urge to eat carbs and sugar, since you disrupted the hormones ghrelin and leptin. According to the International Journal of Endocrinology, hormones like these are closely associated with sleep and circadian rhythm. Ghrelin is the go hormone that tells you when to eat, while leptin is the stop hormone that tells you when you’re full. Thus, more ghrelin plus less leptin equals non-stop cravings. In short: Get enough sleep so that your hormones work appropriately.

9. Brush Your Teeth

When all else fails, pop some gum in your mouth or brush your teeth—mint is a palate cleanser and can help to crush your craving.

Cravings You Can Sink Your Teeth Into

“If you simply cannot help yourself, then stick with foods offering nutritional value, such as non-fat Greek yogurt with a piece of fruit, a handful of veggies and hummus, or a handful (10) of almonds,” says Clifford. And, according to a new study in Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism, walnuts can help as well: The study suggests that these tasty little nuts decrease feelings of hunger and appetite. So, grab a handful of walnuts and munch away.

A few of Clifford’s other favorite go-to snacks:

Sweet:

  • Chocolate smoothie: A scoop of chocolate protein powder, half a banana, and ice. Add 1 tablespoon of flaxseeds or chopped almonds/almond butter for a nutty flavor.
  • 4 celery sticks with 2 tablespoons of nut butter, 1 tablespoon unsweetened cranberries or raisins, and cinnamon.
  • 1 serving of dark chocolate with 1 tablespoon almond butter.
  • ½ cup low-fat cottage cheese with ½ cup berries or pineapple.

Salty:

  • 2 Wasa crackers with ¼ cup hummus or 1 piece of part-skim string cheese.
  • 10 blue corn chips with ¼ cup hummus and salsa.
  • Pizza crackers: 5 flax seed crackers topped with 1 piece of Munster cheese or low-fat Jarlsburg divided and sprinkle with red pepper. Bake at 350 degrees for 5 minutes.
  • Homemade herb popcorn (makes 6 servings): Pop 3 oz. of popcorn without oil in an air popper, melt 4 tablespoons coconut oil and drizzle over the popcorn with 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast, and 2 tablespoons mixed dried herbs (rosemary, parsley, thyme, and oregano). Toss to coat.

Conceding to Cravings: A Last Resort

We get it. Sometimes you just need to give in because life is too short.

“If you’re only eating for emotional reasons, then you want to do your best to avoid indulging in your cravings,” says Clifford. “But if you’re craving pizza because you love pizza, then go for the occasional sampling—in moderation. For instance, if you have plans to meet your girlfriends out at your favorite Neapolitan pizza place, be sure to eat clean all day, order a salad to complement your meal, and stick to your clean eating and workout routine the following day.”

5 Healthier Versions Of Your Favorite Comfort Foods

We all have foods we turn to when we want to soothe our souls. It’s easy to go straight for the cheesy and carby goodness of a pizza, or a full plate of Entenmann’s finest—but it is also possible to enjoy the flavors of our favorite comfort foods in a way that’s a little healthier. With a few tweaks and swaps, you can make your favorite meals or treats more nutritious and less food baby-inducing, and savor every bite without a shred of guilt.

Below are a few of the classic comfort foods I turn to, and how I transform them into lighter—but still delicious—dishes.

1. Meatloaf

Nothing beats pulling a juicy meatloaf out of the oven—but depending on the type of meat you use and how breadcrumb-crazy you go, the calories can really add up.

I like to lighten up traditional meatloaf by swapping beef for lean turkey to save fat and calories, and boost the protein. (While 3-ounces of 85 percent lean ground beef is 212 calories, with 13 grams of fat and 22 grams of protein, the 93 percent lean ground turkey I use is just 129 calories, with 7 grams of fat and 16 grams of protein.) Ground turkey also provides vitamins B6 and B12, along with niacin, choline, selenium, and zinc.

I also add diced veggies—like onions, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, and carrots—to my meatloaf to bulk it up and add some additional fiber and nutrients. When it comes to breadcrumbs, I prefer whole-wheat panko breadcrumbs because they offer a light and crispy crunch, but if you’re looking for a gluten-free option, you can use gluten-free oats, crackers, or even some cooked brown rice.

Check out my full turkey-veggie meatloaf recipe here. You can even transform this meatloaf into meatballs to serve over zucchini noodles!

2. Cake

Anyone with a sweet tooth knows how hard it can be to beat back sugar cravings. Instead of turning to sugar and fat-laden cake, brownies, or cookies, bake up a lighter sweet treat, like banana muffins.

Your average cupcake or muffin comes in around 220 calories with 12 grams of fat and 22 grams of sugar. (Plus, most are made with white all-purpose flour, which is pretty devoid of nutrients—especially fiber.) My banana-almond bread muffins are just sweet enough (they have chocolate chips in there!) and offer the added benefit of potassium and fiber from the bananas and whole-wheat pastry flour. They’re about 200 calories, but with eight grams of fat and half the sugar of a cupcake. No, a banana muffin may not be quite the same as a funfetti cupcake, but I promise it’ll get the job done!

You can boost the health value of this baked good even further by swapping out the oil for an equal amount of mashed avocados. Unlike oil, avocados are a good source of fiber and potassium. Applesauce can also be subbed in for oil—you’ll save tons of calories—but fair warning: While the muffins’ flavor will still be spot-on, they may have a slightly different texture.

3. Pizza

Pizza is the perfect marriage of cheese and carbs—but it’s often a one-way ticket to Food Coma City. Swapping takeout for a DIY pie makes it easier to cut back on calories and bump up the healthy factor of your meal.

In my house, we start with a whole-wheat crust and top it with a variety of vegetables, like fresh spinach, crushed tomatoes, garlic, and mushrooms, and a medley of cheeses. We go lighter on the cheese and heavier on the vegetables to reduce calories, while adding vitamins, minerals, fiber and all the powerful antioxidants vegetables offer. Stick to two cups of shredded mozzarella, so each slice has just about 90 calories worth on it.

To add even more veggie power to your pizza (and slash carbs), build your pie with a cauliflower crust. Cauliflower provides an assortment of nutrients, like vitamins C, K, and B6, folatepantothenic acid, choline, and dietary fiber—and one cup is just 22 calories and five grams of carbs. You can buy cauliflower pizza crusts pre-made in many supermarkets these days (check the freezer aisle) or make them at home.

I like to make my own by mixing together a bag of riced cauliflower, three eggs, half a cup of grated mozzarella cheese, half a cup of chopped nuts (like almonds, pecans, or pignoli nuts), and fresh herbs and Italian seasoning. After combining the ingredients, I flatten the crust onto a pizza stone and bake in the oven at 425 degrees until lightly browned. To really keep the calorie count low, cut down on the amount of mozzarella you use in the crust.

4. Spaghetti

I’m a huge pasta fan, but this often-heavy meal doesn’t always fit into a day of healthy eats. To boost the nutrition of any pasta dish, I always recommend going for a whole-wheat pasta. (While a cup of cooked white pasta has two grams of fiber, a cup of whole-wheat pasta packs around five—and that makes it easier to feel full and stop twirling after one serving.)

Related: 5 Healthier Noodles (That Aren’t Zoodles) For When You’re Craving Pasta

When I want to put veggies at the center of this dish, I use a spiralizer to curl out some zucchini noodles, which saves about 150 calories and 28 grams of carbs. I top my zoodles with tomato sauce, a few chunks of chicken, tofu or cheese, sliced veggies (like red, yellow, and orange bell peppers, and mushrooms), and garlic.

5. Pie

A traditional slice of pie topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream can set you back close to 700 calories, often with around 25 grams of fat and 95 grams of carbs (most of which come from sugar). Delicious, yes, but definitely worth saving for special occasions.

I love the flavors of pie, though, so I ditch the dough and create a cobbler instead. You’ll mix together your favorite fruit—like apples—with seasonings and just a bit of sugar, and top them with an easy and scrumptious crumb topping made from granola and chopped nuts. Top my apple cobbler recipe with a scoop of frozen yogurt and you’ve got a dessert that hovers around 350 calories.

To kick the health factor up yet another notch, go for a baked apple. Core an apple and fill the core with crunched-up graham cracker and cinnamon. Bake in the oven at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. Top it with a small scoop of vanilla frozen yogurt or a few spoons of vanilla Greek yogurt. It may not be a piece of pie, but at 200ish calories, it’s a bargain in comparison.

Related: Check out protein snacks and puddings to satisfy cravings on-the-go.

Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., C.D.N., is an award-winning author, spokesperson, speaker, consultant, and owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC. She has been featured on TV, radio, and print, as well as in digital media, including Everyday HealthBetter Homes & GardensWomen’s Health, and U.S. News & World Report. She is a recipient of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Media Excellence Award.

Pair These Nutrients Together For Maximum Absorption

It’s important to get your greens in, but keeping a healthy diet doesn’t always mean you’re getting all of the nutrients you need. Some nutrients actually maximize or interfere with one another’s function within your body—so depending on what you eat and when, you may be boosting or missing out on the benefits of those healthy foods (and supplements!).

To get the full nutrient bang for your buck and prevent wasting any of the good stuff, you’ll want to pair some nutrients together and avoid eating others together.

Perfect Pairings


There’s a reason you find many bone support supplements combining vitamin D and calcium. These two nutrients work together in our bodies, says Rebecca Lewis, M.S., R.D.N., dietitian for HelloFresh.

Here’s what’s going on: “The majority of the calcium in our body is stored in our bones, and vitamin D helps absorb, carry, and deposit that calcium into our bones,” she says. So if you’re short on vitamin D, your body won’t be able to carry the calcium into the bones to be absorbed and stored, she adds.

Vitamin D can be found in animal-based foods like eggs, fatty fish, dairy, and fish oils, while calcium can be found in dairy, beans, and kale, she says. You can knock out both of these nutrients at once by eating dairy—but otherwise try to pair calcium-rich foods with vitamin D-rich foods. (Good to know: A lot of foods, like milks and cereals, are fortified with vitamin D.)

Another way to better absorb calcium: Pair it with inulin-type fructans (a type of nondigestible carb), suggests research published in The Journal of Nutrition. You can find insulin-type fructans in wheat germ, bananas, garlic, onions, and leeks. So consider adding some wheat germ or banana slices to your morning yogurt.


In addition to pairing vitamin D with calcium, one of the best ways to increase your absorption is to ensure you are getting enough dietary fat, says Andrea Conner, M.P.H., R.D.N., C.D.E.

“Vitamin D is fat-soluble, meaning it needs fat to be absorbed,” says Conner. For that reason, she always recommends pairing vitamin D-rich foods with a high-quality fat, like olive oil, flax seeds, avocado, fish, chia seeds, or nuts. Just a couple teaspoons of oil or a handful of nuts will do the trick, she says.

Those healthy fats will also help you get the most benefit from carotenoid-packed foods (think yellow, orange, and red produce, like peppers, carrots, and tomatoes), according to research out of Ohio State University. The fats make plant compounds like beta-carotene (which we convert into vitamin A) and lycopene more available to our body.

Related: 7 Fatty Foods That Are Good For Your Health


Iron can both enhance and mess with the absorption of other nutrients, says Kelly R. Jones M.S., R.D.N., C.S.S.D., L.D.N. So, while the mineral is a pretty important staple in our diet, what you eat iron with is especially important. 

The biggest concern about iron absorption is whether you’re getting it from plant or animal sources. “Iron from animal foods, like beef, is much more absorbable than iron from plant foods, like spinach, beans, and whole grains,” says Jones. That’s because other factors in plant-based sources can inhibit your uptake of iron—like oxalic acid in spinach, she says. So vegetarians and vegans who get their iron from plant-based sources should be extra vigilant about what they eat it with.

This is where vitamin C comes in handy, Jones says. (You’ll find vitamin C in all sorts of citrus fruits, red peppers, kale, and broccoli.) The vitamin enhances your absorption of iron, so Jones recommends that vegetarians pair the two together whenever possible. “It can be as simple as adding lemon juice to their water while eating a plant-based meal,” Jones suggests. Or just make sure vitamin C-containing veggies make it onto your plate along with those beans or whole grains.


As with iron, any acidic food can also help increase your absorption of vitamin B12, says Jones.

“We all produce stomach fluid in response to hunger and smelling and eating food, and part of that stomach juice is hydrogen chloride, which helps us break down protein and absorb B12,” explains Jones. Adding acidic foods, like vitamin C-containing citrus fruits, can help boost the acid in your stomach needed to absorb that B12, which is found in organ meats, fish, eggs, and feta cheese. Jones likes to spritz lemon on fish or add it to salad dressings to help that B12 get to where it needs to go. You can also sip on some apple cider vinegar and water to boost that acid, she suggests.

 

Sparring Sources


All three of these nutrients are essential for a healthy diet, but they can interfere with one another’s absorption if consumed together in high amounts, says Jones.

“Because the same receptors in the digestive tract absorb zinc, iron, and copper, if there is an excess of one nutrient, it crowds out the others from making it through the intestinal wall,” she explains.

You know you’ll find iron in meats, spinach, beans, and whole grains. But what about copper and zinc? Copper is found in shellfish, organ meats, whole grains, beans, and nuts, while zinc is found in oysters, red meat, and poultry. You’ll want to avoid eating too much of these foods at one time, but the real concern here is with iron supplements. If you take an iron supplement, leave a few hours between popping your pill and eating a meal that includes zinc or copper-containing foods, says Jones. She recommends taking your supplement with a piece of fruit, crackers and hummus, or avocado toast, which are all low in zinc and copper.


Like with copper and zinc, iron competes with calcium to be absorbed in your intestines, so these two minerals reduce each other’s uptake in your body. (And this impairment can occur in either supplement or food form, according to research published in the International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research.)

The competition between these two nutrients is particularly serious for people with certain health conditions. Many people with anemia are told to avoid taking their iron supplements for up to four hours after eating something high in calcium (like a bowl of yogurt or cottage cheese), says Jones. Similarly, women with osteoporosis should avoid taking calcium supplements within a few hours of eating foods high in iron (like beef, spinach, or beans.)

So, you might want to consider avoiding combos that go heavy on meat and cheese, especially if you’re suffering from one of these health conditions.


Sadly, there are a couple circumstances in which you should turn down avocado toast: If you’ve just taken a vitamin K supplement or noshed on a bunch of cruciferous veggies. Why? Vitamin E (which is found in avocado) can mess with vitamin K (which is found in cruciferous veggies and many supplements).

“Excess amounts of vitamin E can actually reduce the absorption of vitamin K, which is important for blood clotting, calcium metabolism, and bone mineralization,” says Elizabeth Ann Shaw, M.S., R.D.N., C.L.T. While moderate amounts in combination—like spinach (vitamin K) and oil-based salad dressing (vitamin E)— shouldn’t do much harm, higher doses can be problematic, she says. Just be sure to stick to a tablespoon of oil in your salad dressing, she adds.

Foods rich in vitamin E include wheat germ oil, grains, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, avocado, and dried prunes, while veggies, like broccoli, kale, spinach, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts are high in vitamin K.

Related: Check out a number of vitamins, minerals, and other supplements to fill in nutritional gaps.

This New Study Has A Lot To Say About Fat, Carbs, And Our Health

By now you’ve already heard that low-carb diets are out—as are high-carb diets, if trends like Paleo, Whole30, and keto have anything to say about it. And one study, dubbed the PURE Study, is aiming to quiet the constant flip-flop of this sort of diet advice.

The study looked into how the diets of people around the world—specifically how much fat and carbs they ate—impacted their health. The researchers, from McMaster University’s Population Health Research Institute, followed more than 135,000 men and women throughout 18 countries over the course of about seven years. The participants, from those in North America to those in South Asia, completed food questionnaires and reported major health events like heart attacks or strokes.

Though it’s not the first study of its kind, the PURE Study was the first to represent such wide-ranging geographic and class-based diversity.

Here’s the thing: Studies like this can’t determine cause and effect—but they can identify patterns and connections. The PURE Study didn’t find any connections between carb and fat consumption and cardiovascular risk, but it did identify two striking connections: one between high-carb diets and higher risk of total mortality (a.k.a. dying of any cause), and one between higher-fat diets and lower risk of total mortality.

On Carbs

Carbs—especially the refined ones—have come under fire in the nutrition world lately, and the PURE Study backs up the idea that eating tons of carbs can backfire on our health.

The study found that when people consumed more than 60 percent of their total calories from carbs, their risk of mortality increased, explains lead study author Mahshid Dehghan, MSc., Ph.D. (For someone that eats a 2,000 calorie diet, that’s about 1,200 calories or 300 grams of carbs a day.)

Who eats the most carbs? People in China, South Asia, and Africa—where poverty and food scarcity are more widespread—were more likely to be eating upwards of 60 percent of their calories from carbs. Most people in the U.S. don’t eat quite this many carbs, though. The study found that the average person in North America or Europe got about 52 percent of their total calories from carbs (which is about 1,040 calories or 260 grams).

Why? Though the study didn’t address the types of carbs people ate, it’s likely that people in these lower-income countries relied on refined carbs like white rice and bread, which tend to be more available and affordable, according to Dehghan.

For optimal health outcomes, the study suggests that a diet consisting of 50 to 55 percent of daily calories from carbs is the sweet spot, says Dehghan.

On Fat

Contrary to decades of diet advice telling us to go low-fat, the PURE Study actually found that people who ate a higher-fat diet had a lower risk of mortality.

In fact, people who ate about 35 percent of their daily calories from fat (that’s about 700 calories or 78 grams) had a 23 percent lower risk of mortality than people who ate 11 percent of their daily calories from fat (about 220 calories or 24 grams). Just keep in mind that as people ate more fat, they ate fewer carbs, says Dehghan.

Related: 7 Fatty Foods That Are Good For Your Health

The researchers also dove into saturated fats, finding a connection between low saturated fat consumption and increased risk of mortality. “While there seems to be a benefit to consuming about 10 percent of calories from saturated fat, mortality risk almost doubles when you drop down to three percent,” says Dehghan.

Those in lower-income nations, the study found, tend to eat less saturated fat. (In fact, the average person in China only got about six percent of their calories from saturated fat).

On the flipside, people in North America and Europe, where foods containing saturated fats tend to be more accessible than in other parts of the world, get about 11 percent of their daily calories from saturated fat.

The debate about how much saturated fat is too much continues to ping-pong, with some recent research questioning whether saturated fat is as bad for heart health as previously thought, and many health organizations (like the American Heart Association) disagreeing. Not only does this study fail to identify a connection between saturated fat intake with cardiovascular disease-related death, but it also calls attention to the potential dangers of eating too little saturated fat, which might be a first.

The Takeaway

The study supports the more-popular-than-ever argument for a diet higher in fat and more moderate in carbs. What’s more, it emphasizes the impact global poverty and food access has on diet and health.

From here the researchers will be looking into associations between specific types of food (like whole grains, sugar, and refined grains) and health, according to Dehghan.

(Read more specifics on the study from The Lancet.)

 

 

 

 


 

Interview: Dr. Mahshid Dehghan, MSc., Ph.D. – lead study author

 

Walk me through the basics of the study.

 

Prospective cohort study – included 135000 men and women from 18 low to high income countries in both urban and rural areas – collected health history and lifestyle factors – measured diet by country through questionnaire – we used a validated questionnaire for each country because cuisine is so different

 

5700 deaths and 4800 major CVD

 

Strength of study is size and international factor

 

Higher consumption of fat compared with low intake is associated with lower mortality risk – about 35% from fat had 23% risk of mortality (around 11%)

 

Increased carbs associated with increased risk – including people from low and mid income countries, we have people with very high carb consumption, it’s not common for people in the US to eat 68% calories from carbs – we had a wide range of nutrient intake by including all of these factors

 

What were the findings related to carb intake?

 

 

 

Was there a particular threshold at/above which carb intake was associated with mortality?

 

More than about 60% of total calories = adverse impact on total and non-cardiovascular mortality – the highest risk from 68% + — quintiles 4 and 5 have highest risk of mortality

  • More than half of the study participants at this much carbs or more
  • Mean carb intake varied from 46 to 77% of total calories
  • 50-55% carbs more appropriate

 

Did the source/quality of the carbs come into play?

 

Sources are important because we need to differentiate whole grains from refined carbs – we did not report different sources here, but are publishing soon

 

Low and mid income countries, majority of carbs come from refined carbohydrate – like rice and bread

 

What were the findings related to fat intake?

 

 

 

            At/above what threshold was fat intake associated with lower mortality risk?

 

  • 35% fat (along with a concomitant decrease of carbs) inversely associated with total mortality

           

            What did you find regarding saturated vs. unsaturated fat?

 

We observed that an association with all fats and lower mortality – true for all 3 types

 

Association stronger for unsaturated – but still for saturated

 

We showed that low fat consumption is harmful – what we know is mainly data from North American and Europe where people consume more saturated and total fat than low income countries – our finding wasn’t shown before – those with very low saturated fat consumption had higher risk of mortality – we are not suggesting high saturated fat consumption – 11-13% of energy, but if lowered to 3% there is a negative association

 

Were any of the findings particularly surprising to you?

 

Yes and no

 

  • No association between fat and major risk of CVD – clinical trials from Europe have shown that high fat consumption is protective

 

  • Such a high carb diet was not reported on before – we are trying to emphasize that when you push people to low fat consumption, they make up for it with carbs and we are observing the impact of a high-carb diet – previous studies didn’t have this amount of data

 

Did any particular spread of nutrients seem to be the ideal?

 

The message from our study is moderation for carbs and fat – we are not supporting very low carb diet, though we see 46% of energy from carbs have lower risks, but we are not suggesting low carb diets—you need energy for physical activity which can be provided by carbohydrates

 

50-55% energy from carbs seems to be fine from our data – and up to 35% energy from fat

 

Is there a next step you see for digging deeper into what you’ve learned here?

 

We need to look at food – when you go to supermarkets you buy food not nutrients – we need to look at associations between foods and health events/outcomes to make it more real-life – we are looking at the different types of starches (refined grains, whole grains, sugar) and meat, and dairy and health outcomes – we have them next year

 

 

How To Get Off The Blood Sugar Roller Coaster

You don’t have to have diabetes to suffer from blood sugar spikes and dips that can leave you feeling jittery, exhausted, and just plain terrible. Adopting healthy eating and lifestyle habits will help stabilize your blood sugar—which, in turn, can keep your energy up, your mood sunnier, and your hormones in check. On top of that, healthy blood sugar is also connected to successful weight management, and can keep related diseases like type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease at bay.

Here’s what you need to know to get off that blood sugar roller coaster once and for all:

1. Understand the glycemic index

“The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly foods are digested, and the resulting effect on blood glucose,” explains David Nico, PhD, a certified wellness coach and author of the book Diet Diagnosis. In short: “High-glycemic foods cause an increase in blood sugar.”

When you eat high glycemic foods (or foods with a lot of sugar) your body releases insulin, a hormone that helps the body absorb and process sugar. But excess glucose can get converted into and stored as, triglycerides ends up getting stored as fat no it doesn’t—so when the body encounters this process too frequently, you run the risk of insulin resistance, which doctors see as an early warning sign for type 2 diabetes.

Related: What A Day Of Sugar-Free Eating Looks Like

When investigating where certain foods might fall on the glycemic index, you’ll see numbers that are based on how much any given food item raises blood glucose levels compared with how much pure glucose raises blood glucose, according to the Mayo Clinic. GI values are generally divided into three categories:

  • Low GI: 1 to 55
  • Medium GI: 56 to 69
  • High GI: 70 and higher

The goal: Aim for low to medium GI foods the majority of the time.

2. Identify low-glycemic foods you enjoy for snacks and meals

“Low-glycemic foods help stabilize blood sugar, as glucose is released more slowly into the bloodstream,” Nico explains. He advises consistently eating “nutritionally-dense whole foods with fiber to support blood sugar stabilization.”

A few low GI options: Green vegetables, most fruits, non-starchy veggies, carrots, chickpeas, lentils, oatmeal (rolled or steel-cut), oat bran, 100% stone-ground whole wheat or pumpernickel bread, and sweet potatoes.

3. Steer clear of high-glycemic foods

Processed foods, especially those high in refined sugar and anything “white” (think white rice, white bread, and potatoes), are typically high on the glycemic index.

“Unhealthy grains found in some baked goods, sweets, and packaged products are highly processed with white flours stripped of beneficial nutrients and fibers and contribute to blood sugar imbalances, because of their high glycemic index and load,” Nico explains. “The over-consumption of highly processed grains may eventually lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes making weight management a challenge.”

4. Prioritize protein

We generally think of lean protein (chicken, fish, plant-based protein like black, kidney, and pinto beans) as the component of our diet we need to eat to build muscle, but it also helps stabilize blood sugar and improves insulin imbalances, Nico explains.

Science proves it: Research published in the Journal of Nutrition found that nondiabetic subjects who ate protein experienced a reduced glycemic response. And research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that in patients with type 2 diabetes, eating a higher-protein diet helped improve glucose control.

5. Don’t be afraid of good fats

Foods that are high in monounsaturated fat (or MUFAs) like olive oil, nuts (almonds, cashews, pecans), canola oil, avocados, nut butters, olives, and peanut oil have been shown in research to benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control. (Incorporating them into your diet could also reduce your risk of heart disease by lowering your total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels but maintain your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol level, notes the Mayo Clinic.)

And if you need a quick update: HDL is the “good” cholesterol, while LDL is the “bad” cholesterol.

Of course, you want to eat all of these foods in moderation—making a point to avoid saturated fats (usually found in processed foods) when you’re adding MUFAs to your diet.

6. Avoid artificial sweeteners

Reaching for a diet cola with zero grams of sugar isn’t necessarily a wise choice over its sugar-laden alternative. Research shows that fake sugar can also be detrimental to blood sugar stability.

Related: Is Sugar Really All That Bad For You?

A study published in the journal Nature found that artificial sweeteners (saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame, for example) raised blood sugar levels by altering microorganisms (mainly bacteria) in the gut.

How 3 Super-Popular Diet Trends Benefit Men And Women Differently

Put two people on a diet and they will never (let’s repeat that: never) have the exact same results.

“The more we learn about nutrition, the more we see the need for personalized nutrition, and finding the right diet for the right person,” explains Donald K. Layman, Ph.D., professor emeritus of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois. “One diet might be really good for one person, but really bad for someone else.”

And that’s especially true when it comes to men and women. The two sexes respond to diets quite differently—and understandably so, considering the differences in our bodies, namely in our hormones. (Read about how and why men and women experience weight loss differently here.)

This certainly applies to trendy nutrition protocols, like Paleo, intermittent fasting, and keto. We asked the experts how each might affect men and women differently, to push you one step closer to finding the diet that works for your body.

The Ketogenic Diet

The purpose of a ketogenic diet is to force the body to run on fat, rather than carbs, for energy. How do you do this? By getting about 80 percent of your daily calories from fat. You’ll eat a moderate amount of protein, but limit carbs as much as possible—about 20 grams a day, which is less than you’ll find in a banana. Eating this way shifts your body into a state of ketosis, in which the body breaks fat down into ketone bodies, a sort of stand-in for carbs.

Related: What You Need To Know About The Ketogenic Diet Trend

It can take anywhere from weeks to months to shift into ketosis and burn fat for fuel, and you’ll need to test your urine or blood to know for sure. Once the body makes the shift, though, increases in satiety hormones and fat metabolism may contribute to weight loss, according to a review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

As you can imagine, this diet is hard for anyone to follow long-term, though men may have better luck. According to Layman, research has shown that a diet’s carb content is a large predictor of whether or not women will stick with it, he says. The more carbs women are allowed, the more sustainable the diet—as any gal who’s scarfed down half a pizza after going low-carb can tell you.

However, there may be worthwhile benefits for women struggling with hormonal issues, namely polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which is often marked by insulin resistance and can lead to a snowball weight gain, infertility, and diabetes. In one study of obese women with PCOS, following a ketogenic diet for 24 weeks led to significant improvement in both weight and fasting insulin levels. “Because PCOS is driven by an imbalance of estrogen and progesterone, and higher insulin levels, a lower carbohydrate diet may help to create a more insulin-sensitive environment and allow the body to use fats and proteins for fuel,” Smith-Ryan says.

According to the researchers, though, the results of this study were similar to those of previous studies in which women consumed up to 100 grams of carbohydrates per day, which qualifies as low-carb but not ketogenic—suggesting women with PCOS can improve their symptoms without having to cut fruit out of their lives. A low-carb—but not severely low-carb—diet is often recommended (and successful), says Layman.

Intermittent Fasting

By dividing days and weeks up into “fasting” and “feasting” periods, intermittent fasting protocols (which exist in a variety of forms, including high and low-calorie days or only eating during certain hours, like 12 to six P.M.), may promote weight loss by making it easier for some dieters to cut calories.

While more research is needed to know exactly how it works, studies suggest that there may be advantages to intermittent fasting beyond cutting calories, Layman says. For instance, a 2017 review from the National Institute on Aging notes that fasting triggers physiological stress pathways that enhance DNA repair and metabolic health. Additionally, a review out of Brazil notes that intermittent fasting can improve the blood lipid profile (lower triglyceride levels, specifically) and inflammatory responses of men.

It’s worth noting, though, that despite fasting’s potential health benefits, a 2017 JAMA Internal Medicine study concluded that it’s no better for weight loss than typical calorie-counting.

Though intermittent fasting can help some people lose weight, it’s not exactly easy to sustain. Case in point: A third of the participants in that JAMA Internal Medicine study we just mentioned dropped out.

And while throwing in the towel is an issue for both men and women, the psychology involved in fasting may pose a different, more serious threat to women. When it comes down to it, intermittent fasting is about “saving up” calories for later, a behavior that can lead to or worsen disordered eating. “Many women will penalize themselves so they can indulge later,” says Layman—a behavior that’s much less common in men. For that reason, he doesn’t recommend anyone—male or female—with a history of body image and eating disorders attempt intermittent fasting. Considering 20 million American women and 10 million men will deal with an eating disorder at some point in their life, fasting may not be a risk worth taking—especially for women.

Paleo

Rich in meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds—and devoid of dairy, legumes, processed foods, and refined sugars—Paleo is all about eating as closely as possible to how our ancestors supposedly did. But because the diet doesn’t address calories or how much of each macronutrient (protein, fat, and carbs) you’re eating, the results are largely contingent on what you do eat while following the diet, Layman says. (Eating a Paleo diet that’s all fruit and nuts will affect your body differently than one full of lean protein and vegetables, for example.) However, Paleo does offer one big benefit: a diet free of refined and processed sugars.

“Fifty-five percent of Americans’ calories come from carbs and roughly 90 percent of the carb calories come from grains. So if you stop eating grains, you likely lose weight,” Layman says. And since most of the processed foods people eat—like crackers, pretzels, pasta, and mac and cheese—are made from refined grains, which offer little nutritional value, nixing processed foods may be a good idea.

For many people, the Paleo diet tends to be pretty meat-heavy, and that may make it more mouth-watering to men, Layman says. After all, data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey shows that the average man eats significantly more meat, poultry, and fish than the average woman.

That said, Paleo can be successful for men and women alike, as long as you can maintain a balanced diet after eliminating dairy, legumes, salt, processed foods, and refined sugars. However, it’s important to make sure that you don’t miss out on the calcium and vitamin D that dairy supplies. This is especially big for women, who are at an increased risk of osteoporosis and tend to require higher intakes to keep their bones strong, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. (You can get calcium elsewhere, like in dark leafy greens or sardines. Vitamin D can also be found in mushrooms, especially those treated with UV lights.) Women should meet with their doctor or a dietitian to make sure their intake of these two nutrients is still adequate while following Paleo.

Related: 5 Mistakes People Make When Going Paleo

Hibiscus Isn’t Just A Pretty Face

Hibiscus is a multicolored flower often found in lush, tropical settings and known for its delicate beauty. But hibiscus is so much more than a pretty wedding centerpiece—it also has many notable health-boosting qualities.

Hibiscus contains polyphenols and flavanols that possess antioxidant and cardioprotective activities, explains Dr. Garrett Wdowin, NMD, a naturopathic medical doctor and integrative medicine specialist in Newport Beach, CA. It has long been used in traditional Ayurvedic (an Eastern belief system) medicine to promote good health. Here’s some of what it can do:

Blood pressure and cholesterol

A human and animal study in Molecular Nutrition and Food Research found that hibiscus extract contains properties that can help promote stable blood pressure. There’s also evidence that hibiscus can support healthy cholesterol and blood glucose levels, according to research in the Pakistan Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences. Just a cup of hibiscus tea daily has shown these benefits, according to the research. Note: If your blood pressure is already low, speak with your doctor before taking hibiscus.

Antioxidant qualities

Like Wdowin says, studies have shown that the hibiscus plant offers key antioxidant properties. In 2014, a review of available scientific evidence in the journal Food Chemistry revealed that hibiscus is rich in phenolic acids (health-supporting micronutrients) and anthocyanins (pigments and flavonoids with health-supporting qualities).

Bonus: When drinking hibiscus tea, you also get a dose of vitamin C (about 46 mg) from the hibiscus leaves, which plays a key role in immune function.

Beauty & skin-care

Increasingly, hibiscus is used as an ingredient in skin-care and beauty products like moisturizers and masks (we recommend the S.W.Basics Hibiscus Mask). That’s because hibiscus brings powerful alpha-hydroxy acids to the table, which can help promote healthy skin.

A 2004 animal study in the journal Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology showed that the plant, when used in moisturizers, may also help prevent some of the potential damage from the sun’s UV rays.

Some people also use hibiscus tea as a DIY hair rinse to improve luster, cleanliness, and softness. Want to try it out? Take a hot cup of hibiscus tea, mix with one-third cup of apple cider vinegar, shake, and then apply all over the scalp and hair. You can add essential oils (careful not to get them in your eyes!) for scent, although it’s not necessary. Massage your scalp and move the mixture through your hair. Rinse with warm water after about 15-30 minutes.

Lastly, according to the journal Biomolecules & Therapeutics, hibiscus’ leaf extracts can potentially support hair growth.

Give it a whirl

If you’re eager to try hibiscus, Dr. Wdowin says tea is his favorite way to weave it into your diet, although he notes that people can find hibiscus as a capsulized supplement, as well. Note: While the journal ISRN Gastroenterology says that hibiscus is generally a safe supplement, you will want to speak with your doctor if you have certain medical conditions. For one, hibiscus is generally not recommended to drink if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, says Wdowin.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, hibiscus may decrease blood sugar levels, so take note if you have diabetes. Same goes for people undergoing surgery: Because hibiscus can affect blood sugar, it’s recommended you not take it two weeks before a scheduled surgery.

There is no official dosage recommendation, although most supplements suggest between 250 mg to 800 mg once per day.

7 High-Calorie Foods You Should Totally Be Eating

We talk about calories a lot. So much so that new food labels will highlight calories in a big, bold font. But as much as we obsess over them, calories don’t always tell the full story of a food.

Beyond calories, we need a variety of nutrients to keep our bodies and minds as healthy as possible. After all, three-hundred calories of whole-grain bread, turkey, lettuce, tomato, and sliced avocado are far different than the same amount of calories from a candy bar. While the number of calories in your diet can determine your weight, the quality of your calories determines your health.

When we get too caught up with calories, we may end up writing off a number of healthy foods that absolutely deserve a spot on our plates. Allow me to make my case for a few of these foods.

1. Chia Seeds

Chia seeds may be tiny, but the calories add up as fast as you can sprinkle them. Don’t let their calorie count—138 calories per two tablespoons—scare you off, though. Those two tablespoons provide a powerhouse of protein (five grams, which is about as much as an egg) and fiber (10 grams).

Try topping a cup of plain Greek yogurt with some fresh-cut mango, half a cup of high-fiber cereal (at least five grams), and a tablespoon of chia seeds. Stash in the fridge overnight and you’ll have a pudding-like breakfast you’ll want to jump out of bed for in the morning.

2. Full-Fat Yogurt

If you haven’t already noticed, full-fat Greek yogurts are taking up more and more shelf space in the dairy aisle. When my patients tell me they don’t like plain Greek yogurt, I usually recommend they give the full-fat version a go. Here’s why: Although a serving of full-fat yogurt is 130 calories (versus 80 for the fat-free stuff), it packs a richer, creamier texture. And, of course, it still provides the usual protein (13 grams, which is about as much as two ounces of chicken). You’ll also get 15 percent of your daily needs for calcium, plus some potassium, zinc, and vitamins B6 and B12. What’s more, the probiotics in yogurt fuel the friendly bacteria in your gut to help boost your immune system. All this goodness is certainly worth 130 calories.

Try swapping full-fat plain Greek yogurt in for sour cream on your next baked potato. The yogurt packs four times as much protein as sour cream and will help you feel fuller for longer.

3. Oil

Oil might make you think, ‘calorie bomb’—and rightly so, considering a single cup of oil is almost 2,000 calories. If you’re mindlessly drizzling it all over your salads and veggies, you might be taking in hundreds of extra calories, but as long as you limit oil to a tablespoon or so, you can benefit from its health benefits without going overboard on the cals. Two of my favorite picks are olive oil and avocado oil, because they contain healthy monounsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated (PUFA) that can support your heart and cholesterol.

When making salad dressings, focus on using less oil and more vinegar. Adding a thick balsamic glaze to your dressing can help keep you from going to oil-heavy—and just a tablespoon provides about a third of the calories as a tablespoon of oil. Just combine balsamic vinegar and a little sweetener in a saucepan and simmer, stirring occasionally until the liquid thickens.

Related: Shop a variety of flavorful, healthy oils.

4. Nuts

Full disclosure: I am nuts about nuts. If there’s any food that I admittedly overdo, it’s nuts. A one-ounce serving of nuts is about 170 calories, with six grams of protein, two grams of fiber, and an array of nutrients coming along with those healthy fats.

Here are a few reasons to eat more nuts (in proper portion sizes, of course): Almonds provide bone-building calcium as well as vitamin E, a nutrient that supports healthy skin. Brazil nuts are a good source of selenium, which is needed to help boost immunity and wound healing. Cashews provide iron, which helps build blood cells. Pistachios are rich in vitamin B6, which supports your nervous system, and lutein and zeaxanthin, two antioxidants that play a role in eye health. Walnuts are rich in the beloved omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for heart health.

Sprinkle sliced, slivered, or crushed nuts over salads, veggie dishes, or even your oatmeal to satisfy your hunger with every crunchy mouthful.

5. Bread

We love to ditch bread when we’re trying to lose weight—but it’s one of the most satisfying, energizing foods out there! While you can feel free to skip the bagels (which often pack around 500 calories even before the cream cheese), a slice of bread is typically about 100 calories. My advice: Instead of giving up bread completely, stick to whole-grain. Whole-grain bread provides more fiber (about two grams versus 0.8 in the white stuff) to promote healthy digestion and fill you up. You’ll also get a dose of B vitamins, which support energy and your nervous system, and the carbs your body needs for fuel. Just look for a loaf that lists ‘whole grain’ as the first ingredient.

Treat yourself in a healthful way by making French toast with whole-grain bread and topping it with fresh fruit instead of syrup.

6. Beans

Beans are not given the superfood status they deserve! These plants pack tons of nutrition into a half-cup serving, which is about 100 calories. Beans are rich in fiber (eight grams), protein (six grams), and goodies like B vitamins, iron, magnesium, potassium, copper, and zinc. Not to mention, they are easy to find in any supermarket, affordable, and simple to store. The soluble fiber in beans has been shown help ward of high cholesterol, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes—whew! Just avoid pre-made bean dishes or sides that are often packed with added sugar.

Beans are great alongside your morning eggs, atop your salad at lunch, or in a soup with dinner. You an even enjoy beans in the form of dip (like chickpeas in hummus) for a fiber and protein-filled snack. I like to jazz up store-bought hummus with chopped veggies, pesto, herbs, spices or honey, and tons of veggie sticks for dunking.

7. Cheese

Cheese pretty much speaks straight to our souls. And while a serving of cheese isn’t quite as much as we wish it was, it provides some valuable nutrients. A one-ounce portion (about the size of two dice) is 110 calories of mostly protein or fat, depending on the variety. You can get up to seven grams of protein per ounce of cheese, plus about 20 percent of your daily calcium needs.

Most cheeses also contain phosphorous, which is important for building strong bones and teeth, as well as zinc, which enhances our ability to taste and smell. Cottage cheese is one of my favorites because you get lots of value (six grams of protein) for little fat—even the full-fat types weigh in at just 55 calories per two ounces.

Related: The Highly Underrated Protein Source You’re Probably Not Eating

Just don’t confuse cheese and cream cheese. Cream cheese is composed mostly of fat (10 grams per ounce) and offers little protein (2 grams per ounce). And when adding a little cheese to your eggs, use shredded cheese instead of sliced cheese. A tablespoon of shredded cheese is just 40 calories, while a slice can be closer to 100.

Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., C.D.N., is an award-winning author, spokesperson, speaker, consultant, and owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC. She has been featured on TV, radio, and print, as well as in digital media, including Everyday HealthBetter Homes & GardensWomen’s Health, and U.S. News & World Report. She is a recipient of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Media Excellence Award.

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Finding Keto Ended My Lifelong Search For The ‘Perfect Diet’

Searching for the right diet has made me feel like I’m Indiana Jones on an elusive quest for a lost and Holy Grail. I’d tried counting my calories and eating low fat foods, but I’d just end up starving—and then binging—after my first week.

I tried eating whatever I wanted and upping my exercise. This did not work at all. After all, unless I was going to exercise all day, I was not going to lose weight. I then tried eating low-carb. I lost some weight, but felt like I was starving.

When I hit 215 pounds, finding the right diet started to feel hopeless.

On top of over-eating, there were other factors at play. A lot of my work life involves writing or editing, so I often end up sitting for most of the day. I love working with words and reading them, but I don’t love the weight that comes with a sedentary lifestyle.

After eating way too much Pad Thai one night, I went to Barnes & Noble to see if I could find a book with a diet solution that didn’t feel like absolute torture. Before going to the diet and cookbook section, I ended up looking at the New Releases section and spotted, almost serendipitously, a book about Alzheimer’s and dieting. It was called The Alzheimer’s Antidote: Using a Low-Carb, High-Fat Diet to Fight Alzheimer’s Disease, Memory Loss, and Cognitive Decline, and its focus was on the ketogenic (high-fat) diet, something that felt seriously antithetical to what I’d been told before (“stay away from fat!”).

When I hit 215 pounds, finding the right diet started to feel hopeless.

My mother had recently passed away from Alzheimer’s and it had left me with lingering fears about my own health. The book brought up both the pain of her loss and my own struggles with eating. Nevertheless, I bought a cup of coffee and read through it, right then and there.

The book described keto as a diet in which you use fat, instead of carbs or even protein, as fuel. It explored the health benefits of a high-fat diet not only for weight loss, but for cognitive functioning. Win!

It really felt like what I was searching for, but it was difficult to wrap my head around the idea of eating fat as being a healthy act. I had vivid memories of the old-school Food Pyramid teaching us that fat would give us heart problems. But there I was, reading this book, which showed me study after study linking keto to health and, on top of that, satiety. I was sold.

Related: 15 Keto Snacks For All You Fat-Fuelers Out There

The first three days of going keto were rough. It reminded me of when I had quit smoking. On the second day, I had a headache the whole day and felt very tired; however, by day five, an amazing thing happened: I felt full and I had lost weight. I was burning off the fat in my stomach without feeling hungry. This was really working!

The only catch? In order to stay on this diet, I had to learn to cook.

It was difficult to wrap my head around the idea of eating fat as being a healthy act.  But there was study after study linking high fat dieting to health and satiety.

The keto diet isn’t just a diet. It’s a lifestyle. A lot of healthy fats need to be prepared and cooked (healthy keto fats include olive oil, avocado oil, butter, ghee, coconut oil). Favorite foods needed to become keto-friendly if I was to seriously focus on my goals. I learned to cook mashed potatoes, pasta, pizza (you can have cheese occasionally), pancakes, and even crackers the keto way. (You really need to avoid all grains, processed foods, refined fats like canola oil, and high-carb veggies, among other things.)

Related: 4 Crucial Insights I Learned Along My Weight-Loss Journey

Eventually it turned into a fun game—what favorite food could I make keto? Cooking became a new hobby and a healthy passion—and it also became a way to heal the little kid in me that liked to binge on food.

I stuck with it and embraced the lifestyle change. By the first month I had lost 10 pounds. I felt more energy and vitality. The weight loss definitely helped, but eating lots of good fat was also an effective way to naturally boost my energy. By the second month, I was down 15 more pounds, and by the fifth month I had hit an important weight-loss goal: 25 pounds lost.

I hope to be another 25 pounds lighter by the end of the year. I do have an occasional slip here and there (I’m not a monk!), and when it happens, I feel the difference in my body. But you don’t have to reject all the carbs; I just make sure every carb I eat counts.

Perhaps most important, I finally realize that there is no universal perfect diet; it really comes down to finding the one that works best for you. For me, that’s keto.

6 Things That Can Happen If You Don’t Eat Enough Fat

Fat often gets a bad rap. If you’ve dieted at some point in your life, chances are you’ve tried going low-fat—after all, low-fat was all the rage for a while there. Nowadays, however, we’ve updated our understanding of fats. We know that certain types of fat are actually good for you—and that they do a lot for your body, from cushioning your organs to controlling your temperature to absorbing fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), according to research from the University of Virginia Medical School. In fact, it turns out that not getting your fill of the good fat every day could actually lead to some scary health issues.

First, it’s important to understand how fat works in your body.

“Good” Fats vs. “Bad” Fats

On the good side, you’ve got polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. On the not-so-good side, you’ve got saturated fats and trans fats.

Polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats help reduce levels of bad cholesterol in your blood, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). In fact, research has shown that both types of good fat can reduce your risk of heart attacks and cardiovascular disease, says Vanessa Rissetto, R.D.

On the flip side, trans fats (which are found in fried foods and many baked goods) and some saturated fats (which are most commonly found in foods like fatty beef, pork, butter, and cheese) can raise your cholesterol. (It’s worth noting, though, that some saturated fats, like those found in coconut oil, can raise your HDL or ‘good cholesterol.’)

Where To Get Those Good Fats

Two types of polyunsaturated fats you’ve probably already heard of: omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Since your body doesn’t produce them on its own, you’ll need to get them through your diet. You can find omega-3s in walnuts, flax seeds, and salmon, while you can find omega-6s in eggs, poultry, nuts, and pumpkin seeds, says Rissetto.

Meanwhile, you can find monounsaturated fatty acids in nuts, seeds, and high-fat fruits like olives and avocado, she adds. (Guac, for the win!) Just keep portions in mind, says Rissetto. A serving of fat equals about a tablespoon of olive oil or a fourth of an avocado, for example.

Related: 7 Fatty Foods That Are Good For Your Health

Even good fats have their pitfalls, though. Research published in BMJ suggests that there could be a link between excessive omega-6 consumption (relative to omega-3 consumption) and increased risk of heart disease. Plus, too many omega-6s can actually promote inflammation, says Rissetto, so you’ll want to watch your intake.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends adult men get 1.6 grams of omega-3s and 17 grams of omega-6s per day and adult women get 1.1 grams of omega-3s and 12 grams of omega-6s per day. As far as monounsaturated fats go, there’s no specific recommended amount.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises getting less than 10 percent of your daily calories from saturated fats and swapping in polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats for saturated fats as much as possible.

What Happens When You Go Too Low-Fat

If you’re still not convinced that healthy fats should be a part of your daily grub, the following facts—all effects of eating too little fat—may inspire you to update your grocery cart. Here’s what might happen if you keep living the low-fat life:

1. You’ll put yourself at an increased risk for diabetes and heart disease. Think about it: Noshing on good fats helps cut your risk of cardiovascular problems—so if you don’t get enough of them, you’re missing out on some legitimate heart benefits, says Rissetto.

2. Your blood sugar may pay the price. When you decrease your intake of saturated fats and up your intake of monounsaturated fats, you may even be able to improve your sensitivity to insulin, a hormone made in the pancreas that regulates your blood sugar levels, says Rissetto. When your body isn’t sensitive enough to insulin, it reacts by producing even more of it, which can lead to type 2 diabetes down the line.

3. You’ll feel really hungry all day long. Fat actually keeps you full for longer, since it’s harder than sugar for your body to break down, says David Greuner, M.D., managing director and co-founder of NYC Surgical Associates. Fat also helps inhibit ghrelin, the hormone responsible for hunger, he says.

4. Your energy levels will be all over the place. When your blood sugar spikes and then dips rapidly—which happens when you eat carbs, since they are full of sugars—you cycle through bursts of energy and subsequent crashes. “When you eat a little fat, though, your blood sugar stays even for a much longer period of time,” says Greuner. And that stability will keep you going full steam ahead.

5. You may have trouble concentrating. Per the University of Maryland Medical Center, there is a high concentration of omega-3s in your brain, so they play a crucial role in your ability to concentrate and memory function. According to a study published in the journal Neurology, when people stuck to a Mediterranean diet (which is full of foods that contain omega-3s, like fish and seeds), they experienced fewer instances of cognitive impairment over the course of about four years.

6. Your skin may feel dry and itchy. Although rare in healthy adults, there is such a thing as essential fatty acid deficiency (EFAD), says Rissetto. Essential fatty acids may contribute to skin health, so one of the symptoms you might deal with if you don’t get enough is a dry, scaly rash, according to Oregon State University’s Linus Pauling Institute. (Other symptoms include decreased immunity and poor wound healing.)

You’re at a higher risk for EFAD if you have a GI condition (such as inflammatory bowel disease), which might make it harder for your body to digest fats, according to the University of Virginia Medical School.

Related: Shop a variety of healthy oils and seeds.

Move Over, Pumpkin Spice: Maple Is Where It’s At

Before football and apple-picking seasons even start, when our air conditioning is still running at full blast, begins the latte-filled pumpkin spice craze. But after what feels like a straight decade of pumpkin spice everything on an annual basis, the trend is as stale as a week-old farm stand donut. In our humble opinion.

So we’ve got a bold idea: This year, nix (or simply cut back on) the pumpkin spice for the equally fall-friendly (and infinitely more awesome) maple. We’re talking pure, sticky, sweet maple syrup—not that high-fructose corn syrup nonsense you get at the diner.

You may think maple syrup is only good for soaking a stack of pancakes, but this natural sweetener actually offers a number of benefits.

We’re not denying that it contains a lot of sugar (almost 27 grams in two tablespoons), but that doesn’t mean maple syrup is the same as table sugar. “Pure maple syrup is considered a whole food,” says Jaclyn Jacobsen, M.S., nutritionist for The Vitamin Shoppe. That certainly can’t be said for table sugar, or even cane sugar, because the original sugar cane goes through chemical processing to turn it into the granulated stuff we all know.

Because maple syrup is still generally in its original form (it’s heated to thicken it up), its nutrients are still intact, and so it has more to offer than table sugar or other more-processed sweeteners. “Pure maple syrup contains 24 different antioxidants,” says Jacobsen. And though it doesn’t contain all 24 in high amounts, there are two worth noting: zinc and manganese. (Quick reminder: antioxidants fight damage from environmental stressors called ‘free radicals.’)

“Zinc is a mineral and antioxidant that supports your immune system, while manganese supports fat and carbohydrate metabolism,” Jacobsen explains. Two tablespoons of pure maple provides about 12 percent of your daily value for zinc and more than 60 percent of your daily value for manganese.

Another perk of maple is that it’s lower on the glycemic index than regular ol’ cane sugar, meaning it doesn’t have quite as rollercoaster-y an effect on your blood sugar and insulin. That’s good news, considering frequent blood sugar spikes can cause weight gain and insulin resistance, which is a precursor to diabetes, Jacobsen says. (Just keep in mind that this doesn’t mean people with blood sugar-related health issues can go willy nilly on the stuff—it’s still high in sugar.)

So, did we sell you on maple’s awesomeness? Grab yourself a bottle (look for one with just a single ingredient: pure maple syrup) and enjoy that sweet, sweet flavor straight through ‘til spring. “You can use maple syrup to make vegan ice cream, sweeten up protein shakes, or bake your favorite treats,” Jacobsen suggests. Some of our favorites are Now Foods’ organic maple syrup and Maple Guild’s organic cinnamon-infused maple syrup.

Check out Jacobsen’s recipe for delicious vegan ice cream, sweetened with maple:

Ingredients:
3 medium bananas, sliced and frozen
½ cup coconut cream
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Add the bananas to a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Add the coconut cream, maple syrup, and vanilla, and again blend until smooth. (Scrape down the sides of the blender as needed.) Enjoy immediately if you like super-soft ice cream, or pour into a freezer-friendly container and freeze for three to six hours. Allow to thaw for 10 minutes before scooping.

8 Snacks That Make Perfect Hiking Partners

Sure, hiking may offer up a great workout (the average person burns more than 400 calories per hour), but it is so, so much more than that. While you’re moving, you’re surrounded by trees, natural scents, and the calm of a quiet trail—so it’s no wonder we feel so good after a hike. In fact, the euphoria we experience after hiking is so powerful it’s even been shown to help reduce feelings of hopelessness in people with severe depression, according to an Austrian study.

So lace up your shoes, grab a backpack, and go get lost in the woods for a little while. Just make sure you’ve got the fuel you need to enjoy every step.

“When I plan a hiking trip, I bring snacks that contain mostly fats and carbs,” says Michael Wolfe, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., dietitian for The Vitamin Shoppe. These two macronutrients provide the energy your body needs to keep going—especially if you’re hitting a challenging trail. And though protein isn’t your body’s go-to for fuel, it will help your body recover after longer day hikes or multi-day trips, he says.

The following snacks are easy to stuff in your pockets or pack in your backpack the next time you head off the grid:

1. RXBARs

Bars are all-star hiking snacks because they’re usually small and can pack a ton of fuel. RXBARs, which are made from whole ingredients like egg whites, dates, and nuts, provide a balanced dose of carbs, fats, and protein.

2. DIY Granola

Kathleen Jones, M.S.A.C.N., C.N.S., nutritionist for The Vitamin Shoppe likes to bring homemade granola on hikes because it provides the fat and carbs your body needs for fuel and is a lightweight way to get calories in. Check out her naturally-sweet recipe:

Ingredients:
1/8 tsp pure Himalayan sea salt
½ tsp cinnamon
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
2 Tbsp. MCT oil
2 Tbsp. amber maple syrup
¼ cup seedless golden raisins
¼ cup hemp seeds
½ cup sliced almonds
2 cups gluten-free rolled oats

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly so everything is well-combined and coated with the wet ingredients. Spread the mixture on a baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes, or just until very lightly toasted. (Keep an eye on the oven.) Let cool before storing in bags or an air-tight container. (Makes six servings.)

3. Health Warrior Chia Bars

These plant-based bars are just about 100 calories and great for shorter hikes. You’ll get both healthy fats (omega-3s for the win!) and filling fiber from the chia seeds—and, bonus perk: Each bar has only four grams of sugar.

4. Jerky

When you’re taking a break on the trail or heading home from a day hike, it’s time for protein! Wolfe packs jerky because it provides protein and doesn’t spoil easy. Ostrim’s beef and elk sticks pack 14 grams of protein in just 90 calories—and their shape makes them super portable. To keep your taste buds happy when you’re off the grid, you can also find jerkies in fun flavors, like Three Jerks’ filet mignon hamburger jerky.

Related: How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

5. DIY Trail Mix

The ultimate outdoorsy snack, trail mix is easy to customize and offers the perfect combo of carbs and fat. We don’t completely hate that many store-bought trail mixes are roughly 50 percent M&MS, but you can keep your mix more wholesome by bagging it at home.

Wolfe likes this combo: half a cup each of peanuts, pumpkin seeds, almonds, dried cranberries, dried pineapple, and semi-sweet chocolate chips. In a third of a cup (about a big handful), you’ll get about 42 grams of carbs and 16 grams of fat to keep you climbing.

6. BHU Fit Protein Bars

In flavors like salted caramel pecan and peanut butter white chocolate, BHU Fit bars are a delicious, guilt-free snack to take out on the trails with you. “They have very clean ingredients, tend to be higher in fat, and are very small and lightweight,” says Jones. You’ll get 13 grams of fat, 14 grams of carbs, and 14 grams of protein per bar.

7. Electrolyte Mix

Okay, what’s in your water bottle may not technically be a snack, but it’s just as important (if not more so!). Kick up your hydration by stirring in an electrolyte mix. These minerals (magnesium, potassium, and sodium) help your body balance fluids and keep your muscles firing properly, says Wolfe. Add grape or raspberry electrolyte power to your H2O with Ultima Refresher’s electrolyte powder, or go for lemon lime with BodyTech’s electrolyte fizz.

8. Barnana Organic Peanut Butter Chewy Banana Bites

Bananas provide just the carbs you need for an energy boost, but they’re easily smush-able in a backpack. Barnana’s chewy banana bites make the fruit more hiking-friendly, and the peanut butter flavor adds a bit of fat for a more satiating and fueling snack.

Related: Check out a ton of guilt-free snacks for on-the-go.

Brand Spotlight: Rainbow Light

We have all sorts of ROYGBIV love for Rainbow Light, a nutritional supplement company founded in 1981. With the brand recently launching their new Vibrance line, we reached out to learn a little more about their origins and mission statement. Check out our Q&A with Rainbow Light general manager Ruben Monheit.

How was Rainbow Light originally envisioned?
Rainbow Light was founded in 1981 in Santa Cruz, California. Our goal was to provide healthy, nutritional supplements grounded in the power of nature.

We believe that nutrition is a powerful catalyst—it restores balance to everyday living and promotes a vibrant, happy, healthy life. Our aim is to create nutritional supplements that unlock a new state of fulfillment (when taken as part of a healthy lifestyle).

We invest heavily in science and innovation, aiming to shape the industry with advancements in nutritional supplementation. In fact, in 1984, Rainbow Light introduced the first ever food-based multivitamin.

We also aim to support digestive health and promote energy with our combination of vitamins, fruits, greens, probiotics and enzymes—so our customers can be their best, most energetic selves.

What is the meaning behind the brand name?
The name stems from our first product offered: spirulina. Our researchers found that spirulina refracts all the colors (which reveal the full range of nutrients in spirulina) of the rainbow when viewed under a light spectrophotometer. Plus, spirulina can still be found in all of our multivitamins.

What can consumers expect when they buy a Rainbow Light product?
Rainbow Light customers can always expect unsurpassed purity, quality, and the best combination of vitamins, minerals, and botanicals in each product. We rely on scientific research to determine what is best to include in each vitamin so we can provide the very best nutrients for your family.

Related: Shop Rainbow Light products, from gummies to tablets. 

Social responsibility seems to be very important to Rainbow Light—why?
Rainbow Light is dedicated to promoting improved health so that individuals and communities can thrive. We feel it is our responsibility to extend our support for human health beyond just our customers—and help those facing malnutrition to get the nourishment they need to live healthy, productive lives. By helping women and children in food-insecure areas around the world, we aim to ensure a prosperous global community for years to come.

By exercising our corporate social responsibility, we help build a stronger state of health for our global community through our founding-supporter partnership with Vitamin Angels, bringing life-saving nutrients to women in developing nations in communities around the globe, including 23 states in the US.

Rainbow Light’s one percent for Global Good program is an initiative in which one percent of all product sales are donated in the form of multivitamins for women and children to food-insecure areas of the world through our partnership with Vitamin Angels.

Rainbow Light is also committed to constant improvements in our own business practices that support a healthy environment. We support organizations like Save Our Shores and 5 Gyres, and continuously strive to improve our corporate footprint. As the first supplement company in the world to convert to 100 percent recycled EcoGuard bottles, we have reduced our package footprint by 92 percent, keeping millions of plastic bottles out of the waste stream annually.

How is Rainbow Light a female-friendly and inclusive brand?
Rainbow Light was led for over 30 years by a woman president/CEO and has always employed equal opportunity hiring practices, flexible schedules for parenting, and support for the healthy lifestyle of its employees.

We’ve also been a leader in customized nutrition for women, and were the first brand to introduce food-based prenatal and women’s multivitamins, as well as the first one-per-day women’s and prenatal formulas.

5 Things To Look For In A Meal-Kit Delivery Service

Though our kitchens haven’t quite gone full Jetsons on us, we can thank technology for the slew of meal and food delivery services helping us make our trips to the grocery store a thing of the past. The meal kit business is now a $2.2 billion industry, and people across the country are getting their groceries or ready-to-make recipes and ingredients sent straight to their doorsteps.

And each of these services offers their own unique twist on the meal. For example, Purple Carrot boasts all plant-based dishes, Blue Apron recently rolled out wine pairings to go along your meals, and HelloFresh lets you choose the difficulty of the recipes you want to prepare. Plated lets you add dessert to your orders, Chef’d offers meals that comply with popular weight loss programs like Atkins and Weight Watchers, and retail behemoth Amazon is also getting in on the action with its Amazon Fresh meal kits, which you can buy without even logging out of your Prime account.

The perks? Meal kit services can help you squash the constant debate about what to have for dinner, while expanding your food horizons and offering healthy options. “Using these services can make cooking fun and easy,” says Martha McKittrick, R.D. “You’ll try new flavors and seasonings that you may never have used on your own.”

Plus, portion sizes seem to be fairly average across the board, so meal kits can help eliminate guesswork about how much to put on your plate, says plant-based dietitian Alex Caspero, M.A. And since many meal kit recipes include plenty of produce, they can benefit the many Americans who are lacking in vegetable and fiber intake, she adds.

But which service is right for you? Here’s what the experts recommend keeping in mind as you sift through the many meal kit delivery services out there.

1. Make sure it fits your general lifestyle.

First, ask yourself why you’re interested in using a meal kit service. Perhaps you just don’t have time to grocery shop, want to clean up your eating habits but don’t know how, or want to work on your kitchen skills. “If your number one goal is easy, healthy meals, that might look different than if you’re interested in learning to cook or expanding your recipe knowledge,” says Caspero. Most companies will have a sampling of recipes available on their website, so scan through nutrition information, look at ingredients, and check on recipe difficulty to make sure that service fits with your lifestyle, Caspero recommends. And if time is of the essence, take note of the time required for a service’s recipes. “While not complicated, some can take up to an hour to make or cook,” says McKittrick.

From there, you’ll also want to check how many portions the service delivers (to make sure you’ll have enough, but not too much) and make sure it fits in with your dietary preferences or offers vegan, gluten-free, Paleo, dairy-free, or organic customization. For example, a service that doesn’t let you swap out meat-centric dishes wouldn’t be a fit for a pescatarian, while a service that features pasta with each might not be appreciated by anyone trying to cut back on carbs.

Lastly, make sure you’re paying attention to the delivery schedule and quantity before signing up. “If you have plans to go out several nights that week, you’ll be stuck with a backload of meals, some of which may not keep well or be freezer-friendly” McKittrick says.

2. Don’t overdo it on sodium.

One potential downfall of a meal kit delivery service: Recipes that are jam-packed with salt, says nutritionist and culinary specialist Sara Haas, R.D.N., L.D.N. The CDC recommends keeping sodium intake below 2,300 milligrams per day, so stay away from meals that pack more than about 700 milligrams per serving, she says.

3. Make sure you’re getting enough vegetables.

If you’re going to pay for a meal kit service, you want it to deliver as much health-promoting produce as possible! “Some of these services go heavy on carbs and skimp on vegetables, which can lead to eating a lot more calories than you realize without feeling satisfied,” says Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., I.N.H.C. A good rule of thumb: Make sure half your plate is filled with non-starchy vegetables, like Brussels sprouts, kale, or asparagus, and split the other half between a quarter protein and a quarter carbs, Cording says. When necessary, she suggests bulking up dishes with extra vegetables of your own, and saving any leftovers for another day.

4. Watch your fat content.

Meal services can be a great way to get fresh ingredients daily without much planning, but because companies need to keep customers coming back, they load their meals with fat, warns nutritionist Vanessa Rissetto, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. “People may automatically assume that the vegetarian or low-carb option is healthy, but a lot of times these meals are loaded with excess fat and therefore excess calories, making it not healthy at all,” she says.

Related: Are There Any Benefits To Eating Salt?

Look for recipes that are higher in unsaturated fat and low in saturated fat, and use add-ons like cheese and salad dressing sparingly. Rissetto recommends keeping your fat intake to 25 percent of your daily calories. Take 25 percent of your daily calories and divide that number by nine (the number of calories per gram of fat) to figure out how many grams of fat total you should consume per day. So if you’re eating a 2,000-calorie diet, that’d be 500 calories of fat, or 55 grams per day—so you’d want to limit meals to about 18 grams of fat each.

Of course, calories are important—but so is where those calories come from, says Haas. “If many of them are coming from saturated fat, skip that meal,” she says, also mentioning that while we all have different calorie needs, a meal with between 500 and 800 calories is a good goal to shoot for.

5. Look for protein.

Protein, which helps build cells and tissues and slows your digestion, helps support your weight management goals and keeps you feeling satiated after a meal. “Otherwise you’ll be left feeling hungry and more likely to overeat later,” says Rissetto.

Rissetto recommends shooting for about 0.8 to one gram of protein per kilogram of weight every day. (That’s about 0.45 grams per pound.) So a 150-pound person would need about 68 grams per day, or about 22 grams per meal.

Related: Shop the Protein Pantry for easy ways to add extra protein to your diet.