The Down Low on Sweet’N Low (and other synthetic sweeteners)

Everyone’s got something to say about synthetic sweeteners and it seems to be one of those topics in nutrition that garners a lot of attention.  I think the main reason for the constant media coverage is because that research surrounding synthetic sweeteners is so contradictory.  In the 1970’s a study on Saccharin (Sweet’N Low) found that it causes a significantly higher rate of bladder cancer in rodents which is where the controversy started.  After this discovery, there were several failed attempts to ban the use of Saccharin and it has been found safe for humans.

So, why do they get such a bad wrap?  Turns out that when our body ingests something sweet, we expect the number of calories to correlate.  Very sweet in our mind means lots of calories.  When we eat something with synthetic sweeteners which are way sweeter than sugar, our body anticipates a load of food preps our digestive system for a considerable caloric intake.  It never actually materializes though and so we feel unsatisfied which actually leads to overeating down the line.

In fact, it’s been proven that people who consume artificial sweeteners gain more weight than those who eat plain sugar.  The weight gain is the super unhealthy type as well that is centered around the midsection (adiposity) that causes heart disease, stroke, and issues with insulin uptake which eventually results in Type II diabetes.

Each sweetener on the market has a different chemical make up – here is how they are broken down:

Sucralose (Splenda) is 600 times sweeter than regular sugar (sucrose).  This specific sweetener is made from sugar but the molecular arrangement is different.  Instead of using 3 pairs of hydrogen and oxygen atoms sucralose uses 3 chlorine atoms.  In recent studies conduct on animals, sucralose was found to decrease the amount of healthy bacteria in the gut by about 50% – no such studies have been preformed on humans to date.

Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet) is 180 times sweeter than sugar.  When ingested aspartame breaks down into aspartic acid and phenylalanine which are amino acids – amino acids are the building blocks of protein so when ingested our body recognizes it as a protein and both can be digested.  The other component of aspartame is methanol (our body doesn’t know what to do with this substance) which when further broken down becomes formaldehyde which is a recognized carcinogen.  The catch here is that you would need to consume an exorbitant amount of aspartame for it to have a cancerous effect, however, FDA has received more complaints about aspartame than any other additive.  Negative symptoms associated with aspartame include headaches, dizziness, mood changes, and memory loss.

Saccharine (Sweet’N Low) is 300 times sweeter than sugar.  This is the sweetener associated with bladder cancer in animals, however, the evidence to support a similar effect in humans has not been substantiated.  It’s made of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur atoms – when broken down our body doesn’t know what to do with the compounds and so it passes through our system undigested.  Dextrose and maltodextrine are used to bulk up saccharine and have a quarter of the caloric energy as sugar so there are calories consumed with you ingest this sweetener.

Neotame  is 13,000 times sweeter than sugar but in its chemical structure is basically the same thing as aspartame minus the phenylalanine.  It’s considered same to consume.

So, while synthetic sweeteners are “safe” to consume I still don’t think they’re the answer – we know that they give people a false sense of security, messes with our metabolism, and cause a host of health issues related to weight gain.  Check back soon for a post on healthier alternatives to refined table sugar.  Being healthy doesn’t mean you can exude sweetness!

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Mayday! Getting Back on Track Post Vacation

Deep Cove Vancouver

The Health Junction took a wonderful trip to the wild wild west and spent time enjoying lovely British Columbia.  Branno and I straight up relaxed in between super fun activities like cycling, kayaking, hiking, running, walking…but mostly sitting around and chilling.

Straight Up Relaxation

The parasympathetic nervous system has taken over and given The H Junction a chance to “reset” and prepare for a busy start of the school year.  While my nervous system has been pampered to the max, the rest of my body systems may be going through a bit of a crisis after deviating from my typical diet, training routine, and daily schedule.  If you’re anything like me, getting back on track after a long vacation can be a challenge but here are a few simple strategies to get rebalanced in no time.

Booze Free Zone

1.)  Banish The Booze … for a few days at least.  It’s an easy way to cut calories and sharpen your mind.

Feed Your Fridge

2.)  Feed Your Fridge with healthy and appealing foods with which to make snacks and main meals.  The day you get home, go grab a few days worth of food so that you can start off on the right foot and nourish your mind and body.

Image provided by David Cooper.

3.)  Be Inspired by new things you may have tried out on vacation.  For me, I quite enjoyed running more and the long hikes/walks which I didn’t really do before.  Keep up your new activities because variety in exercise is the key to making it an enjoyable part of your everyday routine and eliminates bordum.  Maybe you tried tap dancing and loved it?  Tap on!

Fruits and Vegetables Are Classy

4.) F Plus V is good for you and me.  Fruits and veggies are so nourishing and help cleanse your entire digestive system.  They are full of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and are psychologically energizing.  Lots of salads and fruit do the trick after a long vacation.

Debbie Downer

5.)  Don’t be a Debbie Downer.  The whole reason we take vacations is to relax and recharge.  If you ccome back and go full throttle the mind-body benefits of taking a break in the first place will be shortlived.  Ease up killjoy!  Move slowly into your schedule and don’t try to do too much too quickly.  Get out there an exercise but you don’t need to do a 2 hour work out your first day back.  Instead of eliminating all sugars and carbs, just try to eat with a balanced approach.  The more realistic you are, the more sustainable the longterm changes will be.

This post is dedicated to Janet and Steve who introduced me to kayaking and the term Mayday.  Namaste!

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The West Coast Way…learning a thing or two from Beautiful British Columbians

Branno and I are on a trip to visit a bunch of family in British Columbia; my parents in White Rock, his parents just north of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, and a brother and family who live at the foot of Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver.  We’ve been here less than a week and it’s pretty hard NOT to notice how amazing this place is.  My Toronto friends and I often joke calling it “Saint Vancouver” because people who live in the Pacific Northwest don’t have a bad thing to say about it – they rightfully love it!  Some of the license plates here in British Columbia boast the slogan “The Best Place on Earth”.

I am a born and bred Montrealer who now proudly calls Toronto home – to be clear, I love where I live.  Toronto is a bustling metropolis with arts, culture, a multicultural culinary landscape, sports, and serenity (if you know where to find it) but it’s very unlike British Columbia where being active seems to be very much an ingrained lifestyle.  Adopting a healthy lifestyle can be done wherever you live – here are some observations as to why British Columbians do it so well.

Mayor Gregor Robertson

1.)  Vancouver is a city with a vision led by Mayor Gregor Robertson who is a breath of fresh air – literally, one of his key platform issues is making Vancouver the greenest city in the world.  Robertson cycles to work while Rob Ford has been pulled over by the cops on his way to work three times for talking on his cell phone, reading a book, and blowing past a stopped street car.  Ford abolished a vehicle tax that could have been used to fund public transit – Robertson on the other hand has listed his main priorities while in office as ending street homelessness (Fords solution?  He thinks they should “get a job”), affordable housing, and improving public transport.  The four key platform issues Robertson and his council are working hold the health and safety of Vancouverites as a top priority.

Mayor Rob Ford

Dual Cycling Lanes – Vancouver

2.) Bike lanes and pedestrian walkways are actually considered in transportation plans in British Columbia.  My parents live in a relatively rural area that is just north of the American border.  It’s largely a retirement community with houses next to blueberry and llama farms.  I was shocked to see bike lanes on every road in their town – literally, they are even on highways.  In Vancouver, car lanes have been removed to allow for dual bike lanes going the same direction!  It’s as if pedestrians and cyclists come before drivers.  It’s been said that 75% of the factors that influence a person’s health occur outside the healthcare system.  Having a city that encourages walking and biking instead of driving does reduce the rate of obesity.  Check out this article from The Globe and Mail for more on how urban planning impacts health here.

3.)  Seniors are getting busy.  I have been to the swimming pool twice this week and both times I would say over 50% of the patrons were seniors doing aquafit, swimming laps, and socializing with one another.  In the changing room after my swim, I heard an elderly woman say that the pool would be closed starting next week for one month.  She went on to say that she would walk and bike more instead of trying out another pool in the area that her friend suggested.  I saw this same woman leave the pool on her bicycle and no word of a lie she had to have been in her late 60’s or early 70’s.  My mother who hates exercising has taken up the gym and golfing since moving to BC.  Branno’s mum is part of a dragon boating team!!  I’m not quite sure why seniors are so active here – maybe it’s the weather, clean salty air, or a desire and willingness to engage in a healthy lifestyle that is so common in these parts.

More to come on why The West Coast Way is something to consider.

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Weekly Recipe Bulletin: Easy Fusion Chicken, Mint-Ginger Salsa Salmon and Pineapple Basil Chicken Skewers!

In keeping with my quest to eat more protein, here are some tasty meals I tested out over the past week.  It’s a great time of year to capitalize on all the fresh and local produce that is just bursting with flavour!

Easy Fusion Chicken

This is the second time I’ve tried this dish out and it doesn’t disappoint.  It takes about 40 minutes from top to bottom but the overall time can be cut down on if you prep some of it in the morning.  What I like about Fusion Chicken is that it is pretty low in fat, has a ton of flavour, and is satisfying.  Try to go for a low sodium chicken stock – the one I use is called “Imagine”.   Serve over rice – I use PC long grained brown rice which tastes amazing but takes a little longer to cook.  Easy Fusion Chicken has been adapted from the Dietitians of Canada Simply Great Food.

Ingredients:

  • 3 tbsp flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • 500 grams chicken breast, diced
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp mild curry powder
  • 4 shallots, sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
  • 1 1/4 cup chicken stock
  • 1/3 cup raisins
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 tbsp freshly squeezed lime juice

Directions:  Mix flour, salt, and chili in a plastic ziplock bag.  Add chicken and coat.  discard of excess flour and put chicken in a large skillet that has been heated to medium heat with the olive oil.  Brown chicken and then add curry powder.  Cook till chicken is no longer pink in the middle and then remove chicken from the skillet.  In the same skillet, saute shallots and garlic for 2 minutes and then add red pepper, broth, raisins, tomato paste and lime juice.  Return chicken to skillet and reduce heat.  Simmer 15-20 mins till sauce has thickened.  Serves 4.

NuTIPtion:  did you know that Curry is good for cognition?  There are anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agents in this wonder spice and properties that prevent protein plaque build up. 

Mint-Ginger Salsa Salmon

Yum.  Yum.  Yum!  Tangy, tasty, and zesty would be how I describe this dish.  Adapted from WH Foods It takes 20 minutes to make and looks pretty gourmet.  Try this out at your next dinner party!

Ingredients:

  • 1/3 lb salmon fillet, cut in half
  • 2 tsp lemon juice
  • sea salt and pepper to taste
  • Salsa
  • 1 ripe tomato, diced
  • 1/2 cup green onions, minced
  • 1 tsp ginger, minced
  • 2 tsp fresh mint, minced
  • 1 tsp lime juice
  • sea salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

  1. Rub salmon with 2 tsp fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper. Broil for about 5 minutes per side.
  2. Combine salsa ingredients and spoon over salmon.  Garnish with mint.

NuTIPtion:  besides being anti-inflammatory and helping with gastrointestinal upset, Ginger is now being studied for its potential impact on the prevention of colorectal cancer.

Pineapple Basil Chicken Skewers

I’ve been on a chicken skewer kick these days.  They are pretty easy to make, low-fat, and build a good serving or two of veggies into the meal.  I made this recipe for my lovely neighbour Leslie’s birthday and both she and Branno quite enjoyed the moist texture and tangy flavour.  Adapted from a blog I found online Stetted it’s a recipe I’ll definitely be making again.

Ingredients:

1 cup loosely packed basil
1 20-ounce can pineapple in juice
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
Black pepper
1 pound boneless skinless chicken
1 medium white onion
1 green pepper
24 grape tomatoes
10-12 bamboo skewers

Directions: 

Wash basil and pat dry. Drain pineapple juice from can, reserving the chunks for the skewers.  Put basil, pineapple juice, olive oil, salt, and three cracks of pepper into a food processor or blender and blend well and pour over diced chicken.  Cover and let sit in fridge for about 1 hour.  Thread chicken, pineapple pieces, onion, and tomato on skewer and grill over medium heat.

NuTIPtion:  Bromelain is found in pineapple and is a natural digestive enzyme that helps with protein breakdown.  One cup of pineapple also contains 131% of our daily Vitamin C requirements.

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Natural Cheetos, Sunny D, and Other Marketing Hoaxes

In a past life, The Health Junction worked at a large media conglomerate.  While my role as a Marketing Project Manager was to manage the resources and timelines of each campaign, it was necessary to work very closely with the clients and educate myself on their product.  Often, I was provided with PowerPoint presentations on their brand DNA – key points on what makes Brand ABC different from Brand XYZ.

Branding 101

It was interesting to watch the writing/production team come up with a script that was allowed by Advertising Standards Council (check this post for issues surrounding ASC) but still grabbed the viewer’s attention.  I sat in on many script review meetings where we brainstormed ways to convey messaging that was deemed “unfit” by ASC.  In essence, how to say something without actually “saying” it.

What I learned from my time in the media industry is that messaging is VERY creative and can be quite deceptive.  Here are a few claims and related products to watch out for:

1.) All Natural.  This isn’t a regulated or clearly defined terms.  As previously mentioned, I worked on a jam commercial where the tagline was all natural but it had 11 grams of sugar in one tablespoon.  There are  lots of “natural” products on the market that have added colour, flavour, and contain high-fructose corn syrup.  Natural Cheetos exists by the way – complete with disodium phosphate and maltodextrin.  The best way to get all natural is to go with organic food in its rawest form.

2.) Multi-Grain.  A bread can be multigrain and still quite low in nutritional quality.  For example, a bread containing more than one type of grain is classified as multigrain but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy because it could still be totally refined.  An interesting example of this is the Multigrain Tostitos which have only 2 grams of fiber compared to regular Tostitos which contain 1 gram.  Furthermore, the Multigrain version actually has 8 grams of fat compared to 7 grams in the regular.  Both versions contain the same amount Iron (2% of the DV) and Vitamin C (0 %).  For a grain to have the most bang for your buck it should be WHOLE GRAIN.  This means the bread will have the germ, the bran, and the endosperm – these three components will ensure you are getting the optimal amount of fiber, protein, and vitamins.

3.) Vitamin & Mineral Claims.  Products may contain a good amount of one specific nutrient and still be totally and utterly full of garbage.  A great example of this is Sunny D which is in marketing gong show of its own.   Sunny D will give you 100% of your daily Vitamin C but it also contains CANOLA OIL, artificial colours, sweeteners, and sodium hexametaphosphate (a food additive that can cause swelling of the kidney’s when consumed in excess).  Another example of this is Glaceau VitaminWater which is owned by Coca Cola – each bottle contains 33 grams of sugar which is almost as much as a can of pop.

 Check back tomorrow for a post on different types of sweeteners – find out which ones are a hit and which are a miss.

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Going Mental: Think Like An Olympian

In the light of the Olympics, The Health Junction has been reading about sports psychology and I find it interesting that some of the key strategies used by elite athletes can be applied to obtaining health, balance, and wellness for us regular folk.

What makes Olympic athletes so special, in my opinion, is their approach to training, nutrition, and mental focus.

It’s easy to see how consistent and tactical training combined with a well thought out nutritional plan help develop top performers.  But, what often differentiates an excellent athlete from an olympic athlete is the way they balance the external environment with their own thoughts.  Here are some mental techniques used by athletes that we can also apply to our own fitness, health, and life goals:

Set Goals

Set Goals:  in watching the Olympics, you may have noticed many athletes who don’t make the podium are still pleased with the results.  Having a realistic idea of where we are, and where we want to go helps us accomplish an individual personal best.  Process goals are interesting – it involves focusing on one or two things to work on during a performance.  For example, accurate passing in hockey, executing a strong flip turn in swimming, or keeping breathing in check during a run.  Using the SMART acronym can assist in developing a tangible goal:

S – Specific.  Ensure that the goal is clear and concise.

M – Measurable.  How will you measure your goal?  Will it be to shave some time off a swim?  Score more goals in hockey?  Reduce cramping during a run?

A – Attainable.  It needs to be realistic.  When I did my first longer distance triathlon this past summer I didn’t try to “beat” any time or come in first.  My “A” was to finish the race.

R – Relevant.  Try to choose a lifestyle or fitness goal that will get you where you want to be.  Focus your efforts on your area of expertise or interest.

T – Time.  Set a deadline.  It will make it easier to plan and schedule the tasks needed to achieve your goal.

Visualize:  several studies have found the more advanced an athlete, the more they tend to visualize an event prior to competition.  While visualization doesn’t tend to improve motor or technical aspects of performance, it helps athletes mentally prepare.  This can be applied to giving a presentation, planning a healthy meal, or committing to a workout.

Organized Chaos: Staying Calm in the Storm

Get Tough &  Stay Calm: athletes are mentally tough; they can handle both physical strain and mental stress very well.  Mental Toughness is quite broadly defined, but The Journal of Applied Sports Psychology has summarized some key attributes as a belief in ones capabilities through self-confidence, an ability to handle anxiety and pressure, and an all around sharp focus.

Strong & Confident

Get Confident:  Perhaps the most important on the aforementioned list is the development of self-confidence – studies have shown that the more one believes in their own ability, the better they perform.  Sports Psychology has posted some interesting tips on developing self-confidence in their blog The Power of Prime:

  • having a positive attitude
  • refraining from negative self-talk
  • excepting failure is normal from time to time
  • prepare, prepare, prepare
  • embrace challenges as an opportunity for skill advancement

So, let the Olympics inspire you to set your own health goals – visualize your success, get strong, stay calm, and improve your confidence!

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Super Science Friend & The Glycemic Index

The Health Junction: Nerdy and Proud

What’s the big deal with the Glycemic Index?!  A lot actually.  Call me a nerd if you like, but the Glycemic Index really gets me tickin’.

The Health Junction has a super smart science friend named Janice, aka, Jawesome who runs Canada’s leading laboratory in the area of clinical nutritional research.  I was lucky enough to visit Jawseome at work yesterday and spent three hours watching the ins and outs of  Glycemic Index Labs.   GI Labs was founded by Dr. Thomas Wolever (check out his latest book here) who along with David Jenkins came up with the revolutionary concept of Glycemic Index for carbohydrate selection in their now famous 1981 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Nutrition Guru Jawesome (Janice Campbell)

I’m proud to say that these two pioneers of nutritional sciences continue to teach at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine (Nutritional Sciences) but interestingly, Canada is the only place in the world where Glycemic Index ratings cannot be displayed on food packaging.  My friend Janice, did her thesis at U of T on GI methodology under the supervision of Dr. Wolever (who I met yesterday!!) and offered some great insight into why the GI is a great tool to understand for us everyday lay people.

How does the Glycemic Index work?

Simply put, the GI works by measuring how a food changes blood sugar levels.  Low GI foods cause a slow, gradual rise and then a subsequent gentle fall in blood glucose.  High GI foods will result in a sudden spike and quick fall in blood glucose levels.  Foods are ranked out of 100; low GI is 55 or less, high GI is 70 or more.

Why are lower GI foods ideal?

Eating carbohydrates that have a high GI results in rapid fluctuations in blood sugar and over time can result in problems with blood sugar control – commonly expressed as hypoglycemia.  Over time, insulin, which helps shuttle glucose into the cells for energy, becomes less effective and ultimately can lead to Pre-Diabetes or Type II Diabetes.  Diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer are all closely linked together.  Having one, increases the risk of having or developing another.

What are the health benefits of lower GI foods?

Compared to a higher GI food, in general, low GI foods will leave you feeling fuller, longer.  It can be a vaulable tool in selecting carbohydrates that help control blood sugar levels and may help assist in managing body weight.

How do I know what food are low GI?

There are a lot of resources available online, but in general look for whole unprocessed foods; wholegrain bread instead of white, long brown rice instead of short grain or white, oatmeal instead of rice krispies.  The longer it takes to breakdown food, the better.  This doesn’t mean that you have to avoid high GI foods, because they may contain lots of great nutrients (example, potatoes).  If you are going to eat a high GI food and are concerned about your blood sugar, try eating some protein or another high fiber carbohydrate in combination with the high GI food.

What is the difference between Glycemic Load and Glycemic Index?

Glycemix Index tells you how quickly a carbohydrate in a food will raise your blood sugar.  The Glycemic Load gives us an even better picture because it give us information on how much of of the carbohydrate exisits in a specific food.  A great example that Jawesome told me about was watermelon.

Watermelon has a GI of 72 but the fact is that there isn’t actually a lot (quantity wise) of carbohydrate in the fruit.  So you would need to eat A LOT of watermelon to see a blood sugar rise – in fact is has a load of only 4 (out of a total of 60).  This chart gives a nice summary:

Check back for tomorrow when The Health Junction continues the Worldy Nutrition Series with a stop in Europe.

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