Category Archives: Sports Science

An Athlete’s Guide to Staying Healthy During Cold and Flu Season

Marit Bjørgen on her way to Olympic gold on the 15 km pursuit in Vancouver 2010.Photo: Bjarte Hetland / Wikimedia
Marit Bjørgen skiing to Olympic gold at the Vancouver Olympics.Photo: Bjarte Hetland / Wikimedia

The Norwegian team fought off more than their competitors at the Vancouver Olympics: following guidelines developed by their medical team after disappointing results at the Turin Olympics, they managed to fight off viruses at an impressive rate: only 5% of athletes got sick (compared to 17% in Turin) and just 4 missed an event because of illness (compared to 8 in Turin).

Illness can have far reaching effects among athletes if it strikes during an important competition or compromises training.  A mild infection like a cold that wouldn’t cause absenteeism in the general public can influence an athlete’s training and performance. Also, circumstances like travel to races and close contact with teammates can predispose athletes to illness. Upper respiratory tract infections (colds, coughs, flu, sinusitis, throat and ear infections) are some of the most common illnesses reported.

Although generally physical activity strengthens the immune system, high performance athletes may be more susceptible to infection at certain times, especially after intense or prolonged training sessions or during a heavy training load. After hard training, researchers have observed a decreased immune function in athletes, meaning that conditions are ripe for viral illnesses to take hold: these changes include increased cortisol levels, and increases in substances that could negatively impact white blood cell function (white blood cells help protect your body from infectious diseases).

Strengthen Your Immune System

But all sickness isn’t inevitable. Your first and best defense should be to maintain a strong immune system that is primed to fight off the germs, viruses, and other invaders that most of us are constantly exposed to.

Your immune system is not one entity, but an amazing interconnected network that includes cells, organs, and molecules that work together to protect you from colds, flu, and other ailments. The system is so complex that many factors can influence how it performs, including things that you can control, like your training, lifestyle habits, and nutrition.

Do you want your immune system to perform at its best? Here are some tips.

Get Enough Sleep

Woman SleepingSleep gives your body a chance to restore and repair itself. Sleep is also critical to many aspects of your mental, physical, and emotional health. Unfortunately, many athletes sacrifice the sleep they desperately need to squeeze more into each day.

Lack of sleep makes it harder for your immune system to do its job: during sleep, your body produces infection-fighting antibodies and protective “cytokines,” proteins that orchestrate your body’s response to infection and inflammation. Studies suggest that lack of sleep affects the ability to process carbohydrates, manage stress, fight infection, and regulate hormones (and importantly for athletes – it also hinders coordination, reflexes, and the ability to learn a new skill). Sleep deprivation can also reduce the effectiveness of flu vaccines.

People who don’t get enough sleep are more susceptible to getting sick after exposure to a virus. In fact, a recent study found that too little sleep can quadruple your risk for colds. Researchers exposed individuals to a cold virus, and found that those who slept less than 6 hours a night were 4.5 times more likely to catch a cold than those who slept more than 7 hours a night. The influence of sleep on colds was far greater than all other factors measured (which included age, stress, race, education, income). Don’t assume that 7 hours is an optimal amount of sleep based on this study (which looked at non-athletes); athletes generally need more sleep than the general population.

If you want to keep colds, flu, and bacterial infections at bay, prioritize sleep!

Practice Good Sports Nutrition

eload+clif bottleMany athletes neglect the importance of sports nutrition. This takes planning and a bit of time, but is definitely worth the effort. What you eat before workouts, during workouts, and after workouts not only supports your athletic endeavors, but can keep your immune system strong. One area that I see many athletes neglecting is consuming carbohydrates during long or intense training sessions, or coming to training sessions underfueled.

Athletes who don’t consume sufficient carbohydrates during intense or long training sessions might be decreasing their ability to fight off infections. Carbohydrates help maintain blood glucose concentration and limit metabolic stress: this study found that carbohydrate consumption during exercise was associated with lower stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) and reduced symptoms of overreaching, and another study found that exercising in a glycogen (stored carbohydrate) depleted state negatively influenced stress hormones. This article updates the latest recommendations for carbohydrate intake during exercise.

Eat a Healthy Diet

Mediterranean Diet FoodsAthletes should consume a nutrient-rich diet with adequate calories to support their activities and the vitamins and minerals necessary for good health. A dietary pattern that has been found to prevent chronic disease is also your best bet to fight off infectious diseases. Focus on vegetables and fruits, legumes, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats while limiting processed foods, refined grains, and sugars.

Sugar intake can be confusing for athletes, because during workouts sugar is often your body’s fuel of choice for optimal performance. The trick is to save these sweet foods for when you need them during intense or long bouts of activity and when your body processes them to help you move, and limit them at other times.

What About Supplements?

supplements (640x482)In general, there is no convincing evidence to suggest that supplements boost immunity or prevent colds in healthy individuals, although they may help malnourished or some individuals deficient in critical nutrients.

Here is the the latest research on popular cold and flu supplements . . .

Vitamin C.  Despite being disproven by countless studies, many people believe high doses of Vitamin C will help prevent the common cold.  Some inconsistent evidence suggests that low-dose (250 mg – 1000 mg/day) supplementation with vitamin C might reduce the duration of a cold, and 5 studies in people exposed to severe physical exercise (including marathon runners and skiers) suggest that vitamin C might cut the risk of getting a cold in half (though 2 studies in competitive swimmers and marine recruits showed no effect).

Zinc. High doses of zinc acetate may reduce the duration of a cold, according to a recent analysis of three clinical trials. But zinc has potential side effects so don’t take for over a week, or as a cold-preventative.

Cold-FX  boasts many questionable claims, and there’s no evidence of benefit at symptom onset (and very weak evidence as a cold preventative).

“Immune boosting supplements” are a waste of money. And you may see lists of “immune-boosting” foods, but your best bet is to consume a healthy diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables.  In case you’re compelled to take Vitamin C based on the research noted above, here’s a list of foods rich in vitamin C (and many other protective compounds).

It’s important to consider research showing that megadoses of certain vitamins can actually suppress the immune system; for example, zinc is important for immune function, but high dose supplements may actually suppress immune response.

Also, athletes should keep in mind the emerging evidence showing that antioxidant supplements might actually hurt performance by reducing the health-promoting effects of training.

Food Sources of Vitamin C

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Runner Athletics 659444 1280 PubdomainFat cells influence the immune system. While most people consider fat inert, scientists now view it as an endocrine or immune organ that secretes hormones and other substances that influence many of the body’s processes. Excess body fat promotes the production of inflammatory immune cells that predispose to illness and disease and a weaken the immune system’s response to infections. So if you are overweight losing weight can improve immune function.

But inadequate body fat stores are problematic as well, and this could be a problem for athletes focused on becoming too lean.  Some fat is essential for a healthy body and immune system, and too little body fat can promote illness, increase susceptibility to colds and other viruses, and lead to immune system abnormalities.  Also, athletes should avoid rapid weight loss or severe calorie restriction as it compromises performance, health, and increases susceptibility to infections.

Respect Rest and Recovery Days

Sportlog CommentsIntense training is necessary to improve, but without adequate recovery built into a training program intense or excessive training can lead to a compromised immune system and decreased performance. Athletes react differently to training loads, so adjust your training or talk to your coach if you’re feeling unusually tired.

It’s a good idea to keep a detailed training log where, in addition to noting workout specifics, you can keep track of your sleep and fatigue levels. While some fatigue is expected after hard weeks or hard workouts, prolonged or unusual periods of fatigue are a sign that you need some time off.

Get the Flu Shot

Even healthy people can get pretty sick from influenza and spread it to others. Some experts believe athletes might be at higher risk of becoming infected if they have a high training load that compromises their immunity. And if infected with the flu, athletes may be at higher risk for complications like myocarditis.

A seasonal flu shot will help you develop antibodies against the viruses contained in the vaccine, greatly reducing your chance of getting infected with the flu. If you do get infected, it will reduce the severity of the illness. Importantly, protecting yourself from flu will also help protect those around you who may be more vulnerable  if they become infected (i.e., older people, those with compromised immune systems).

Time it Right. Elite athletes may have concerns about the timing of the flu shot and other vaccinations. This recent article outlines vaccination guidelines for elite athletes. It is a great resource and discusses vaccines recommended for athletes, and optimal timing to minimize interference with training and racing, and other issues specific to athletes.

Learn How to Respond to Stress

stress woman study homeworkBeyond the stress of intense exercise sessions, athletes may have stress related to school work/exams, job responsibilities, family obligations, and social interactions.

High academic stress can increase illness and injuries in athletes. Athletes are more than three times more likely to get injured during times of high academic stress compared to periods of low academic stress, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Missouri.

Strategies to help cope with stress. Avoiding stressful situations isn’t always possible or practical. In fact, it’s likely how we respond to stress and not the stressor itself that contributes to illness. One study found that collegiate athletes (rowers) assigned to a group that learned strategies to cope with stress (Cognitive Behavioral Stress Management – CBSM) experienced significant reductions in the number of illness and injury days and reported half the number of health services visits compared to athletes who didn’t learn these strategies. (You can learn more about CBSM strategies in this lecture).

Mindfulness training is an additional strategy that is gaining popularity among athletes.  A study of elite junior athletes in Norway found that 12 weeks of mindfulness training had a positive impact on the athletes’ recovery and prevention of burnout, and a study in BMX riders found that a 7-week mindfulness training course improved several measures of self-awareness and stress response.

It might be helpful to keep in mind that stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As athletes, stress allows us to get stronger, fitter, and faster: hard workouts stress our body’s systems and they respond by adapting to handle the stress. Mental stresses allow us to figure things out, become more resilient, and learn to adapt to difficult situations.

That said, sometimes life throws you more stressors than you are primed to deal with. Try to anticipate periods of added stress (e.g., exam period) and adjust your workouts accordingly.

Don’t worry too much . . . Worrying is a form of stress and can affect health —  and that includes worrying too much about getting sick!  At least you can put the fears of sickness caused by airplane air, germs in gyms, and necessity of wearing face masks aside, according to UC Berkeley Wellness.

Limit the Invaders

While a strong immune system will improve your odds of staying healthy, you can also reduce your risk of infection by limiting your exposure to cold and flu causing germs.


Washing HandsHandwashing is an effective way to reduce the risk of infections. Many viruses are easily spread by direct contact, and unwashed hands are a terrific vehicle for germs. Your eyes, nose, and mouth are the route that most cold and flu viruses enter your body, and most people touch these areas many times throughout the day, often without realizing it.

So keep those hands away from your face, and wash them, especially after being in contact with someone who has a cold and other obvious times (e.g., preparing food, after using the toilet, playing with pets, etc.).

Most people could use a refresher in handwashing: a recent study found that only 5% of people wash hands the right way.

Here’s how to do it right:

  • Wash all surfaces of your hands with plain soap and hot water for about 20 seconds (about the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice – or if you prefer One Republic check out the video below!). Handwashing reduces the risk of getting sick by creating a slippery environment that causes microorganisms to slip off the hands.
  • Use a hand sanitizer (alcohol gels and wipes with at least 60% alcohol) when you don’t have access to soap and water. (Generally handwashing is preferable and just as effective at reducing the spread of germs).
  • Skip antibacterial soaps and antiseptic products. Research shows they have no benefit over regular soap and water, can cause skin irritation, and promote drug-resistant bacteria.

Limit exposure

Keep your distance and limit your exposure to infected people, and be sure to wash your hands after coming into contact. If facilities are available, coaches might consider giving a sick athlete their own sleeping quarters.

I Got Sick! Now What?

  • Cold And Flu Blow NoseTry not to expose others. Limit contact with others, and cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze to prevent the spread of germs. If you don’t have a tissue cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve or elbow, not your hands.
  • Get plenty of sleep and stay hydrated. Warm liquids may feel soothing to a sore throat, ease congestion, and increase the flow of mucus.
  • Over the counter products won’t cure your cold but can help ease symptoms. Keep in mind that they aren’t without side effects: some can cause drowsiness or disrupt sleep. Also, some contain a stimulant (pseudoephedrine) that is banned during competition (WADA advises athletes to avoid pseudoephedrine-containing cold and flu products for several days in advance of competition).
  • Supplements. Although marketing efforts will lead you to think otherwise, the evidence that supplements, pharmaceuticals, or products will shorten the duration of your cold is nonexistent or weak.  Some evidence suggests that zinc lozenges taken at the first symptoms may help a cold (be sure not to take them for more than a week, or long-term in the hopes you’ll prevent a cold). Cold-FX is a popular remedy boasting questionable claims, but there’s no evidence of benefit at symptom onset (and very weak evidence as a cold preventative). Sorry if I’ve ruined any placebo effect these supplements might have!
  • If you suspect you have the flu see your doctor. Ask about antiviral drugs that can shorten the duration of the flu and possibly reduce its intensity.
  • Home Remedies. Gargling with salt water might ease cold symptoms, and this study suggested that regularly gargling with salt water decreased colds by 40%.

soupChicken soup for a cold? A handful of studies have looked into this folk remedy, but the benefits aren’t clear. In 1978, Mount Sinai researchers conducted a study and found that a classic chicken soup was more effective at fighting congestion than hot or cold water. A more recent study found that a traditional  “Grandma’s” chicken soup with onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery, parsley, might ease cold symptoms, possibly due to mild anti-inflammatory effect (although researchers could not isolate which soup ingredients were protective). Generally the evidence for chicken soup helping colds is weak, but it seems that any nourishing hot soup might have some benefits, due to their nutrition-filled broth that rehydrates, easy feeding for a sore throat or poor appetite, or hot vapors to help clear nasal passages.

Should You Exercise When You’re Sick?

Runner Stretching SmallLow intensity exercise can sometimes be helpful, but high intensity workouts or long training sessions aren’t a good idea; let the severity of your symptoms and how you feel guide you.

Some exercise physiologists encourage low to moderate exercise, especially for head colds where symptoms are above the neck (runny noses and sneezing), but advise more caution for colds that produce fevers or chest congestion.

Although this hasn’t been studied extensively, research has found that exercising with a cold didn’t affect lung function or exercise capacity, cold symptoms, or recovery time, and this study (in mice) found that moderate exercise lessened flu symptoms in mice infected with the virus.

You might consider illness a good time to focus on other sports-related activities (stretching, recovery techniques, mental training) or activities that don’t elevate heart too much or require strenuous breathing (skills and technique training).

Bottom Line

Strengthening your immune system and limiting invaders will help keep you healthy. A bonus is that beyond reducing illness, many of these strategies (getting more sleep, eating a healthy diet, reducing stress) will benefit other areas of health and athletic performance.


Reviewed & updated October 24, 2016

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This Week in Food, Health, and Fitness

This week, read about how wind resistance affects performance in cycling and running, Herbalife, Shakeology, new research on muscle cramps, nutritious foods you should stop throwing away, beet juice for high altitude, eating to heal sports injuries, dietary supplement regulation, and more.

Shakeology: Nutrition Scam & Waste of Money.  A look at the nutrition in the shake, and the multi-level marketing scheme. (Fooducate)

Herbalife. Dietitian Diana Chard provides a nice review of Herbalife, summing it up with “Herbalife is a company with a dubious sales model, selling questionable products (I’m being generous here) that’s run by a doctor with a clear lack of integrity. If you want soy nuts, go to the Bulk Barn. Don’t waste your money supporting a despicable company like Herbalife.” (Diana Chard, Bite My Words)

Find more News and Reviews of Popular Diets here.

Can reducing wind resistance improve your performance? Drag is a big deal in some sports. This week Alex Hutchinson looks at how professional cyclists are working on reducing drag without sacrificing power by making small adjustments that lead to considerable gains in performance. (Globe and Mail).  He also goes further in his Runners’ World column wondering how much drag can influence running performance. While not as pronounced as cycling because of reduced speeds, drafting behind other runners has significant benefits, and swift runners (faster than 4:00/km) may see benefits with small adjustments, though this hasn’t been studied.  Other sports with faster speeds (i.e., cross country skiing) would likely see benefits from drag reductions (better tucks on downhills, maybe even hats instead of headbands with ponytails . . .).

Peeled ApplesNutritious foods you should stop throwing away. A lot of food waste happens at home. Beyond better purchasing and food storage, you can reduce your food waste by changing some eating habits.  This article offers good tips for celery leaves, apple peels, broccoli stalks, citrus rind, beet greens, and squash seeds.  (Washington Post)

Social media content may hold keys to important health information.  A new study shows that the language individuals use in their social media posts may have a strong connection to their health. (BMJ Quality & Safety, 2015).

Muscle Cramps and side stitches. . .

Two articles this week looked at muscle cramping – a frustrating experience for many athletes.

Is there a way to prevent muscle cramps during exercise?  Although many believe dehydration and sweating is at the root of most muscle cramps, the most recent studies don’t support this. Most new evidence points to fatigue and overexcited nerve endings as causing muscles to spasm. Strengthening and stretching the affected muscles are the current recommended treatments. (New York Times)

Can some foods prevent muscle cramps? Here is a list of 5 foods showing some evidence at reducing cramping, but the research isn’t solid, and it seems that the fatigue issue noted above in the New York Times article has more support. (Fooducate)

Some people call side stitches cramps, but this is likely a different phenomenon than a cramping calf or hamstring muscle. Clinically known as “exercise related transient abdominal pain,” this condition can be persistent and difficult to treat. Here’s a very thorough and recent review of the research,  and a popular press article based on this research on side stitches here. Side stitches are likely caused by irritation of the parietal peritoneum, a membrane that wraps around the center of your body and abdomen.

Though at this point the research isn’t clear, some recommendations include improving core stability and posture (especially in the thoracic region), integrating core strength into a warmup routine, and running tall for good posture.  (Some evidence suggests that side stitches are worse in cold-weather running races). Also avoiding large volumes of food/drink before might help – sports drinks might be best tolerated since athletes need the calories and carbs for their workout and they are well generally absorbed. If a stitch strikes during an event, deep belly breathing or pushing the affected area might help.


Supplements cause more than 23,000 ER visits a year. Although many consider supplements “natural” and “safe,” they are unregulated and many adverse side effects likely go unreported. A study this week in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that an estimated 23,000 emergency department visits in the US yearly are attributed to adverse events related to dietary supplements. (New England Journal of Medicine).

Why aren’t dietary supplements regulated? Here’s a great explanation.

Enter the rockstar scientist, exit trust in science.  This article comments on two scientists whose personal beliefs have led them to disregard evidence-based science (or any study that doesn’t support their view). Sarah Wild provides the example of Tim Noakes, a popular exercise physiologist, who endorses a very low carbohydrate diet (limiting daily carb intake to the equivalent of 1 apple) as the best diet for health, and supporting his views on social media with anecdotes that lack good science. Previously Noakes has been criticized for disregarding science (that doesn’t support his opinions), promoting his high-fat low-carb diet as evidence-based, and stating that a proven link between vaccines and autism have been covered up.

Can what you eat help heal sports injuries? Muscle and tendon injuries are common in athletes, and new studies are uncovering new rehabilitation and diet strategies that can help muscle and tendon heal faster.  Exercise physiologist Asker Jeukendrup summarizes evidence presented at a recent conference for muscle injury and tendon injury. (Asker Jeukendrup,

tomato_public domain_nci-vol-2642-72Increasing lycopene absorption.  Lycopene is an antioxicant compound belonging to carotenoid family that gives tomatoes, papayas, and watermelon a red hue. A large body of research has investigated lycopene for its health-promoting properties. Tomatoes are especially recognized for their lycopene content, and some research  suggests that eating tomato products can decrease inflammation, an important underlying contributor to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.   This article offers tips on increasing your body’s absorption of lycopene. Although many people believe “fresh is always best,” processing and heating actually improve lycopene absorption (think canned tomatoes/tomato sauces). So does eating tomatoes with fat – which makes olive oil and tomatoes a winning combination for more than taste! (American Institute for Cancer Research).

A placebo can make you run faster.  Another study reveals the power of the mind on athletic performance (Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times).

New study helps explain why eating disorders are so difficult to treat.  Although many people make poor food choices, anorexia nervosa is a serious illness where maladaptive food choices can lead to starvation. In a new study, researchers from UC San Diego look at the neural mechanisms underlying anorexia nervosa with brain scanning techniques, and show that brain circuits involved in habitual behavior might help explain the destructive choices. When presented with images of food, brain areas of women with anorexia were more involved than in women without anorexia, suggesting that anorexics weren’t weighing the pros and cons of the food, but choosing based on past experience.  The findings emphasize the importance of seeking treatment early. (Nature Neuroscience, October 2015).

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This Week in Food, Health, & Fitness

This week, read about sports nutrition for stress fractures, 5 great Fall foods, the accuracy of running apps, healthy eating habits for lazy college students, new research into intervals and periodization, Vegan glam, Isagenix, and more.

Prone to stress fractures? Consider your sports nutrition.
Weight bearing exercise is generally good for bone health, because bone responds to the stress of exercise by becoming stronger.  But some athletes are more prone to stress fractures than others, for example active women who are underweight and amenorrheic often have decreased bone mineral density.  Although a variety of factors contribute to fractures, recent research suggests that what an athlete eats before, during, and after exercise can influence bone turnover. Making the right choices could potentially offset bone loss and prevent stress fractures.

Carbohydrates during exercise might benefit bones.  It is already firmly established that eating carbohydrates helps endurance performance; this week a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology looked at how carbohydrates (8% glucose solution, similar to most sports drinks) during exercise influence bone metabolism during a strenuous 2-hour treadmill run. Researchers found that compared to placebo, runners who ingested carbohydrates during their run had reduced markers of bone resorption (breakdown). The effect was small and requires further study, but if you’re someone who goes without food/carbs during long workouts (and are prone to stress fractures), it seems this would be an good strategy to adopt, especially since carbohydrates will help other performance measures as well.   (Journal of Applied Physiology, October 2015)

As I’ve reported before, another strategy for bone health is a calcium-rich meal before exercise. Athletes lose calcium through sweat during exercise, which puts them at risk for bone loss, especially if their activity is non impact since it doesn’t benefit bones. A study in female cyclists found that eating a dairy-rich meal 90 minutes before riding can counter bone loss.  The pre-ride calcium-rich meal keeps blood calcium levels stable, so your body doesn’t borrow calcium from your bones to replace what’s lost in sweat. (PLOS ONE, May 2015)

 red apples5 Foods That Taste Better in October Than They Will All Year. Hard to limit it to 5, but it’s a great time to enjoy apples, pears, pumpkins, persimmons, & grapes. (Time)

Physics of falling says professional athletes are running wrong. A Norwegian physicist theorizes that runners could be much faster if they ran in a way that used gravity (Proceedings of the Royal Society, Sept 2015). His study was quickly shot down by Alex Hutchinson (Runner’s World) here.

How accurately do running apps track your distance? A good explanation of the measurement error you can expect to find with GPS apps. (Beth Skwarecki, Lifehacker).

Walking quieter routes to work can avoid peaks in air pollution. Commuting to work by walking on quieter side streets rather than main roads can help people avoid exposure to peaks in harmful air pollution. (European Respiratory Society’s International Congress, 2015.)

33 Healthy Eating Habits Lazy College Students Will Appreciate.  A lot of these tips are actually pretty good! (Buzzfeed)

What’s better – a long walk or a short stair climb? Both are good, but stairs are more intense physical activity and you will have more health benefits for a shorter activity time. (Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times).

21 “easy” food swaps you can make now without missing out. This is a great takedown of an article full of nutrition misinformation. Before you go swapping coconut oil for the fat in your recipe, sea salt for regular salt, or rice malt syrup for sugar, read this article. (Diane Chard, Bite My Words).

For coaches & athletes – best interval formats and periodization. Alex Hutchinson reports on a talk by exercise physiologist Stephen Seiler from the Norwegian Olympic federation (he often studies xc skiers) looking at two questions that most coaches and athletes ponder:  (1) how do the intensity and duration of intervals interact? and (2) does periodization matter? The article provides a nice summary of complex questions. You can view Seiler’s talk here.  (Alex Hutchinson, Runners World).

‘Vegan Glam’! Where Is the Vegan Julia Child? New York Times readers respond to article about trendy vegans. (New York Times)

Volkswagen emissions cheating caused $100 million in health costs. The far-reaching impact of a company’s horrible action. (Grist)

Choose healthy high carb foods
Choose healthy high carb foods

Unsaturated fats, high-quality carbs lower risk of heart disease. Although “butter is back” was a popular headline, the study that prompted this has been called into question.  In a new study, Harvard researchers debunked a controversial paper suggesting that saturated fat intake did not affect heart health, and note that the quality of both the fat and carbohydrate consumed are important. When they compared saturated fat intake with intake of other types of fats and different types of carbohydrates, they found that replacing saturated fats with refined carbohydrates didn’t benefit heart health, but replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats (found in nuts, seeds, fatty fish, and vegetable oils) and/or nutritious carbohydrates did benefit heart health.  In practical terms, your entire diet is important. . .  it doesn’t help if you limit butter, bacon, and burgers if you replace those foods with white bread, cookies and processed carbs, but replacing those foods with nuts, fatty fish, and healthy carbs will benefit your heart. (Sept 28, 2015, Journal of the American College of Cardiology).

Often carbohydrates are lumped into one category, which leads to much misunderstanding, because the health impacts of various types of carbs can be dramatically different (soda is not the same as oats). It’s critical to distinguish healthy carbohydrates (vegetables, legumes, whole grains), and generally unhealthy ones (refined/processed).

Calcium supplements do not prevent fractures. Two new studies looked at calcium intake and fracture risk in people over 50 years of age. One study compared supplementary dietary calcium to calcium supplements and found only a small but non-clinical increase in bone-mineral density. Another study conducted a systematic review of the research and found that the evidence for preventing fractures from increased dietary calcium or dietary supplements was weak.  The editorial calls for revisiting guidelines for calcium supplementation (BMJ).

Why taller people are at greater risk of cancer. While it is well known that being overweight contributes to cancer risk, the relationship between height and cancer risk is not as well known or understood. This is a good explanation of a complex topic. (World Cancer Research Fund).

Lose weight, create wealth, join Isagenix!? Ah huh… A nutrition scientist’s view of the weight loss scam. (Cocoa & Bliss).

Previous articles on Isagenix  . . .

New Recipe: Beets & Arugula in a Curry Vinaigrette

Beets Arugula Tall SmSweet and colourful, beets will certainly brighten up any meal! Their brilliant red hue comes from pigments called anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants studied for their disease-prevention potential. Beets, arugula, and celery are also good sources of dietary nitrates, which have been linked to improved athletic performance and blood pressure regulation.

This beet and arugula salad is great anytime, but terrific when fresh beets and apples are in season. It takes a little longer to prepare than my typical salads, but if you cook the beets in advance it is pretty quick to put together.











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This Week in Food, Health, and Fitness

This week, read about how the mind influences physical performance, how eating on the move may lead to overindulging, 5 foods to eat in September, a magic marketing word that makes foods seem healthier, how too little sleep quadruples your risk for colds, risks of heavy backpacks for kids, microwave myths, iron status and training at altitude, how young female athletes need a lot more food, and more.

The Mind’s Influence on Physical Performance

This week, the Toronto Star published an article on Canadian women rowers as they prepare for the 2015 World Rowing Championships in France. The article focused on how these athletes deal with the pain of intense exercise, and how these women believe that how their minds interpret pain can influence their physical performance.  It was obvious that these women not only train their bodies to perform at their best, but are aware of a growing area of research looking at the underpinnings of fatigue in endurance performance suggesting that the brain quits before the body reaches its true physical limits.

Much of the recent research is this area has been led by Samuele Marcora, professor of exercise physiology at the University of Kent.  His studies show that athletes who use  strategies that reduce the perception of effort (i.e., motivational self talk, imagery, music) perform better than athletes who don’t use such strategies. He also studies training techniques that athletes can use to improve their mind’s ability to tolerate intense efforts, and investigates how mental fatigue can adversely affect performance.

In this sports infographic, Yann LeMeur explains one of Marcora’s studies, showing that mental fatigue can impair running performance. This highlights that it’s important to find ways to reduce mental fatigue before competitions or high quality training sessions. Future areas of research may include using mental fatigue as training stimulus. (Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014 Dec 9)


More reading on the mind’s influence on fatigue . . .

More Links of Interest this Week

Are Women Better Tasters Than Men?  Women of reproductive-age have a higher level of sensitivity to smell and taste than men.  (NPR Health)

Fresh Swish Chard5 Foods That Taste Better in September Than They Will All Year.  September brings so many great foods! Time Health highlights these 5: Swiss chard, rutabaga, lettuce, turnip leaves, and leeks. (Time Magazine)

Eating on the Move May Lead to Later Overindulging. Researchers compared eating while watching TV, walking, or talking, and found that those who ate while walking were more likely to overindulge when presented with food later. Researchers speculate that this type of eating is distracted and may offer a justification to overeat.   (New York Times, reporting on Journal of Health Psychology, Aug 2015).

This is How One Word Magically Makes Food Healthier. Packaged foods are rife with marketing tricks, and many consumers fall for them. Fooducate reports on a study showing that consumers looking at cereal ingredients perceive the cereal with “fruit sugar” as healthier than the cereal with “sugar,” although the nutrient profiles of both cereals are the same. (Fooducate, reporting on Appetite, July,  2015)

Too Little Sleep May Quadruple Your Risk for Colds.  Sleep is important for a strong immune system, and a study published this week adds to the evidence. Researchers exposed individuals to a cold virus, and found that those who slept less than 6 hours/night were 4 times more likely to catch a cold than those who slept more than 7 hours/night. (Medscape, reporting on Sleep, Sept 2015).

Microwave Myths.  Do microwaves destroys nutrients or “denature” food in a harmful way? No. Monica Reinagel looks at the evidence behind this popular myth.  (

Backpack School 880033 640 PixabayIs your kid’s gigantic backpack a health risk?  Backpacks are getting bigger and heavier. Several recent studies (UCSD, UCSF ) suggest that the heavy loads contribute to back pain in children.  Experts recommend that a child’s backpack should be no more than 10-20% of the child’s body weight.   (Time)

Training at altitude requires adequate iron stores. If you are an athlete with low iron stores, this new study suggests that it’s important for you try to improve your iron status before training at high altitude, and consider iron supplementation when at altitude.  The study found that daily iron supplementation while training at altitude can help attenuate a reduction in iron stores.  Overall, athletes with low iron stores should take a look at their diet, and consider an iron supplement under the supervision of a physician, especially if training or racing at altitude. (PlosOne, August 2015).

Why one naturopath quit after watching her peers treat cancer patients.  Julia Beluz interviews Britt Hermes’s, a former naturopath, who became concerned with the lack of evidence-based practices in her profession (and potential dangers to public health), which she chronicles on her blog Confessions of a Naturopathic Doctor  (Julia Beluz,

Fresh Bread And Wheat On The WoodenLess processed fiber makes food healthierEven though grains processed in different ways might have the same nutritional content, an increasing amount of research shows that less processed grains have a nutritional advantage. For example, rolled oats and oat flour are both 100% whole grain and contain the same nutrients, but rolled oats are a bigger particle and take longer to digest, so they are better for blood sugar and insulin control (i.e., whole oats are better than Cheerios [powdered oats], even though both are whole grain).  A study published this week adds to the evidence that a grain’s particle size can influence health.  Researchers investigated the impact of porridge made from coarse wheat particles vs fine wheat particles, and found that coarse wheat particles resulted in much more favorable blood markers (lower blood glucose, lower insulin, and lower c-peptide).   (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition)

ShreddiesEven though 100% whole grains are healthier than their refined counterparts, the least processed option is probably healthier. Keep in mind that most breakfast cereals (even when 100% whole grain) are highly processed into a fine powder to make those square, flake, and circle shapes. This can be good for athletes to snack on during long exercise sessions when they need quickly available sugars that their body can use as fuel, but is probably not the best option at the breakfast table.

To Thrive, Many Young Female Athletes Need A Lot More Food. Many girls aren’t eating enough to meet the physical demands of their sport, predisposing them to many health problems. (NPR Health)

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