Extreme Newsletter—Diet and fitness tips, recipes, and motivation

SWEET AND SALTY Issue #070 03/01/11

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6 Simple Rules for Eating Sugar

By Denis Faye

Few topics boggle the minds of dieters and fitness enthusiasts the way sugar does. Is this simple carbohydrate the key to unlocking elite sports performance? Or is it the chains that drag our country deeper and deeper into the obesity epidemic? Annoyingly, the answer is "both." But before you throw your hands up in frustration and grab yourself a Twinkie®, let's take a minute to talk about sugar. It's not as complex as it seems. In fact, with just a few guidelines, it's incredibly easy to use these simple carbohydrates for good instead of evil.

Berries Covered in Sugar

Rule #1: Just say "know."

Spoonful of SugarHere's a grossly over-simplified look at how sugar, also known as simple carbohydrates, works. Just as with all carbs, you eat sugar and it's absorbed by your blood, where, if you have the right amount of insulin in your system, that insulin converts the sugar to energy. However, if you introduce too much sugar into your system, the insulin stores it as body fat. A little stored body fat is fine; the body likes some emergency fuel. However, if your blood sugar spikes too often and the insulin has to work too hard converting fat, this can lead to a variety of health issues, including type 2 diabetes and heart problems.

As we'll discuss later, when your body obtains sugar from natural sources, like fruits and veggies, the process tends to be checked by fiber, which slows absorption. However, when you eat foods with added sugar, this can overwhelm the usual checks and balances, causing problems like those nasty blood sugar spikes. To make matters worse, consuming too much added sugar can cause a host of other problems, including tooth decay, increased triglycerides (or stored fat), and malnutrition (from overconsumption of foods filled with empty calories and deficient in nutrients).

If you wanted one overarching rule to work from, you might choose to avoid added sugars entirely. You'll get all the energy you need from foods with naturally occurring sugar. That said, there are times when refined sugar is OK or even beneficial. If you're able to build yourself a lifestyle completely free of added sugar, nice work. But for the rest of us, the trick is moderation.

Rule #2: Less is more.

One teaspoon of table sugar has 15 calories. Honestly, if you have a couple of cups of tea or coffee in the morning and you dump the proverbial spoonful of sugar in each, that's 30 calories.

If the rest of your diet is tight and you're active, it won't matter. If you're trying to lose weight and are eating at a severe deficit, you'll probably want to skip those few spoonfuls of sugar, because table sugar is nutritionally void and you want every calorie to count nutritionally. Other than that, though, life's short—enjoy your java.

Rule #3: Sugar is sugar is sugar . . .

HoneyAgave nectar, honey, beet sugar, cane sugar, brown sugar, dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), whatever. At the end of the day, they're all simple carbs, unregulated by fiber with minimal micronutrient value. Sure, you might prefer one over the other. I like honey because I'm a bit of a whole foods person and it does have a tiny bit of nutritional value, but I still know that if I eat too much, it'll make me fat.

Rule #4: . . . and it's hiding behind every corner.

And you thought Invasion of the Body Snatchers was creepy . . . Avoiding the obvious sweetened foods, like soda, cake, cookies and pies, is only half the battle. Manufacturers add HFCS (as well as other sugars) to a mind-boggling amount of foods because it adds flavor. If it's in a bottle, box, or can, read the ingredients. You'll find sweeteners in everything from ketchup to peanut butter to bread to salad dressing. With a little effort, you can usually find versions of the same food with no added sugars or HFCS that are more nutritious and taste just as good.

Rule #5: No, the sugar in fruit isn't bad for you.

FruitsWhen the low carb "revolution" hit in the early aughts, fruit was demonized for its sugar content. This is, in a word, ridiculous. Yes, fruit is loaded with sugar, but it's also usually loaded with fiber, which slows sugar absorption, making it an ideal way to get your simple carbs without straining your little insulin buddies. Fruit is also loaded with easy-to-absorb vitamins and minerals. Most fruit is also filled with water, yet another benefit.

Even relatively low-fiber fruits like bananas offer far too many benefits to be denied. Bananas, in particular, are rich in electrolytes, which are crucial to sports performance. As I always say, I defy you to introduce me to an overweight person whose biggest indulgence is fruit.

You can think of the ingredients in Shakeology® the same way. Sure, there's a little sugar in there, but the protein and fiber slow absorption and the massive amount of nutrients makes it all worthwhile.

Rule #6: Occasionally, a hit of straight sugar is a good thing.

You're sitting around watching television. You haven't done much today. Your glycogen stores are up, and because you've eaten normally, your blood sugar level is balanced. Time for some P90X® Results and Recovery Formula®? Probably not.

Conversely, you just blasted a killer workout. You've blown through your blood sugar and your glycogen, leaving you shaky and tired. Getting some sugar in there now to help you recharge fast wouldn't be such a bad idea. Furthermore, since it'll rush in so fast, it's a great opportunity to add some protein and micronutrients to that sugar blast, because they'll rush into where they're needed just as quickly.

If you genuinely gave the workout your all and you're truly wiped out, you won't even come close to storing that sugar as fat.

So there you go. Not so tough, huh? With a little forethought and self-control, keeping an eye on your carbs can be, ahem, a piece of cake.

Related Articles
"6 Foods with Hidden Sugar"
"Sugar Addiction Detox 101"
"5 Tips for Getting More Whole Fruit in Your Diet"

Questions about your workout program, diet, the latest newsletter, or anything wellness related? Chat with Denis Faye, Beachbody fitness and diet expert, in the Beachbody Chat Room on Monday, March 7th, at 3:00 PM ET, 12:00 PM PT.

If you'd like to ask a question or comment on this newsletter article, click here to add a comment in the newsletter review section or you can email us at mailbag@beachbody.com.

Check out our Fitness Advisor's responses to your comments in Steve Edwards' Mailbag on the Message Boards. If you'd like to receive Steve Edwards' Mailbag by email, click here to subscribe to Steve's Health and Fitness Newsletter. And if you'd like to know more about Steve's views on fitness, nutrition, and outdoor sports, read his blog, The Straight Dope, recently named one of the Top 50 blogs covering the sports industry by the Masters in Sports Administration.

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Salt: Taste Bud Thriller or Silent Killer?

By Joe Wilkes

Salt: No fat. No calories. Not to mention it's delicious! What's not to love? Well, as most of us know, too much salt can be a major contributor to high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease, stroke, or kidney disorders. But our bodies also need a certain amount of salt every day, because it's required by all cells to maintain fluid balance, and it's vital for proper nerve and muscle function. And because salt is excreted mainly through urine and sweat, the most intense exercisers need even more of it to maintain a proper balance. So how much salt should we be consuming? Read on to find out how much salt you should consume, plus where extra salt gets hidden in food, and some tips on how you can reduce your sodium consumption.


How much salt do we need?

While how much salt we need on a daily basis varies with each person, depending on age, size, activity level, etc., it's generally agreed that our bodies each need about 500 mg of sodium a day to function properly. That's about a quarter of a teaspoon of table salt (sodium chloride, the most typical source of sodium). The federal government recommends a daily maximum of 2,400 mg of sodium. Most of us average about 5,000 mg of sodium per day—10 times as much as our bodies require and more than twice the recommended maximum. So unless you're working out a lot and excreting excess sodium, you may be getting way more than you need, which can lead to the myriad of health problems associated with high blood pressure. The American Medical Association has estimated that a 50 percent reduction in sodium usage in processed and restaurant food could save 150,000 lives every year. But even if you don't believe in or care about the medical repercussions of excess salt consumption, how about this little tidbit? It's estimated that most of us are carrying around an extra five pounds of water weight, retained simply because of the excess salt in our bodies. Drop five pounds of water weight just by passing up the salt shaker? Sounds like a good deal to me!

Where salt hides . . .

Nutritional InformationBut passing up the salt shaker may not be enough. Almost all processed foods contain high levels of sodium. For example, that Quarter Pounder® with Cheese at McDonald's® will pump you full of almost 1,200 mg of sodium, more than twice what your body needs and half of the government's daily recommended maximum. But even if you eschew the burger for its fat and calories, there's salt in other places too. One cup of Cheerios® contains 200 mg of salt, so you're kicking off your day with 8 percent of your recommended sodium allotment.

Why so much salt? Salt has been used as a preservative for centuries to cure meats and pickle vegetables, among other uses. And while we've developed new preservatives over the years, salt has other advantages as a food additive. It can thicken soups and sauces. It can make breads, cookies, and crackers more moist. It can enhance certain flavors (like sweet and sour) and mask other tastes, like the chemical additives in soft drinks. So even if you're steering clear of salty treats like pretzels, pickles, and popcorn, if you check your labels carefully you may find you're getting a fair amount of sodium from food items that don't even taste salty.

Also, if you tend to purchase a lot of foods labeled "diet" or "light," you may find that they have pretty high sodium levels. Adding extra salt can make food taste better while still allowing them to be advertised as low-calorie, low-fat products. Manufacturers can also sneak extra salt into the ingredient list under different names, like monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium caseinate, trisodium phosphate, sodium ascorbate, or sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). So even if salt isn't in the ingredient list or is spread out throughout the ingredient list under different names, it's worth checking the overall sodium content on the nutrition label to determine the total sodium content. And don't forget to take the serving size into account. Many food manufacturers will say that their product contains several tiny servings of salt instead of a couple of regular servings to minimize the less savory elements of the product's nutritional profile.

How to avoid the salt traps

ActiVit®Shake the shaker. How many times have you seen yourself or someone you know be served a plate of food and mindlessly begin salting it, before even tasting it? I know I've been guilty of it. I love salt and can think of few meals that couldn't be improved by adding salt. But at least taste your food first before you add salt—especially in restaurants, where for top chefs to fast-food flippers, salt is often the secret ingredient, and adding more of it is probably unnecessary. If you do think it needs a little salt, shake a little salt into the palm of your hand, so you can at least eyeball the amount you're going to eat (not to mention that it'll save your dish from the old unscrew-the-top-of-the-salt-shaker prank). At home, think about dumping the salt shaker and switching to a saltcellar. A saltcellar is a little covered bowl that holds salt. That way you can visually measure a little pinch and not shake out an unknown amount over your food. You might also consider switching to sea salt, or for the gourmets, one of the fancier fleur de sel products on the market. Sea salts generally contain trace amounts of minerals like iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and/or zinc. This doesn't boost the nutritional profile of sea salt (try nutritionals like ActiVit® or Core Cal-Mag for effective mineral supplementation), but it offers a more complex flavor, which may make less taste like more.

Take processed meats out of the process. I'm devastated to say that this includes bacon. Just two delicious slices contain about 400 mg of sodium. One beef hot dog contains 600 mg of sodium (a quarter of the recommended daily allotment), and a turkey dog is only a little less salty, at 500 mg. One slice of bologna gets you about 300 mg of sodium. Most turkey breast lunch meat is as salt-heavy as bologna. And if it's labeled "smoked," "oven-roasted," "mesquite-flavored," etc., it's usually code for "extra salty." Try looking for low-sodium varieties, or save money by roasting your own whole turkey breast so you can control the salt content.

SoupSoup's off. Soup is a great low-calorie meal or snack. Unless it's a creamy variety, it's usually low in fat and a good vegetable delivery system. But watch out for the salt content! One cup of Campbell's® Chicken Noodle Soup contains 1,780 mg of sodium. That's almost three-quarters of your recommended daily maximum. Their Healthy Request® version is better. A cup of that has 940 mg of sodium. You might think about making your own chicken broth from scratch using fresh vegetables for flavor instead of salt. Make a big batch and freeze it or can it for later.

Freeze out the frozen dinner. Men's Health magazine recently published a survey about some of America's saltiest foods and found that Swanson® Hungry-Man® XXL Roasted Carved Turkey packed a whopping 4,480 mg of sodium. That's approaching 2 days' worth of the maximum recommended allowance. It also has 1,360 calories and 70 grams (more than a day's worth) of fat, so there're plenty of reasons not to eat this dish. But several of the lean frozen meals on the market also contain high levels of sodium to make up for the lack of fat or sugar for flavor. And frozen pizza? Fuhgeddaboutit! Two slices of pepperoni will run you about 1,000 mg of sodium.

Can the canned vegetables. Or at least the ones that aren't low-sodium. Manufacturers add as much as 1,200 mg of salt to a can of vegetables for flavor and preservation. Try buying no-salt-added varieties or frozen veggies, which usually have less salt. Or at the very least, make sure to drain the canned veggies well and rinse them in water to try to get some of the salt out.

The usual suspects. I won't even bother depressing you with how much salt fast food restaurants put in their food, even the healthier ones. I found out that a single flame-grilled chicken breast from my much-loved El Pollo Loco® has 617 mg of sodium. Adding up the sodium from my sides of pinto beans, mashed potatoes, and trips to the salsa bar, and my "heart-healthy" grilled chicken meal has racked up over 3,300 mg of sodium. No wonder I have dry mouth all night when I eat there.

No salt? No problem.

So the most important thing to do is check the labels of everything you eat and make sure you're not getting more salt than you bargained for—or as I call it, committing to a life of bland, joyless eating. But with a little ingenuity, you can find ways to replace salt with other flavors, or at least maximize your enjoyment of the salt you do allow yourself. It's also important to remember that as you start to remove salt from your diet, your palate may miss it a lot at first, but if you stick with it, you'll be amazed how much better food starts to taste as you get the salt monkey off your back. Here are some ideas for replacing salt with flavor.

HerbsHerbs. And let me say for the record, I know every article about sodium talks about Mrs. Dash, but I don't think it tastes very good. I'd much rather have fresh herbs, either from my local farmers' market or my balcony garden. With herbs like basil, rosemary, oregano, thyme, chives, etc., I chop a bunch of my favorites on Sunday and keep them in a zip-lock bag in my fridge for when I want to sprinkle a little flavor on something. Fresh herbs give foods a lot of zing, and it's fun to experiment with different flavor combinations. Some of the herbs even have their own beneficial properties.

Heat. As much of a salt addict as I am, I'm even more of a "hot tooth." And the good news here is that most spicy peppers and hot sauces are actually good for you, or at the very worst not bad for you. Some hot sauces add too much salt, so it's label-reading time again, and the peck of pickled peppers are better left to Peter of the rhyme. Besides, once you start enjoying chopped fresh (not pickled) jalapeños, you'll wonder why you ever liked those salty old pickles. If you're lucky enough to live in a city with a Penzey's or a similar spice specialty store, they're a great resource for coming up with salt-free seasonings, rubs, and exotic paprikas and curries to give your dishes flavor without a side of hypertension. Another tip while you're weaning yourself off the salty stuff is to make your own seasoned salt blend. Mix a batch by combining a small amount of salt with a variety of your favorite herbs and spices. Every time you make a new batch, decrease the ratio of salt to spice more and more, until one fine day you're not including any salt at all. It's like a nicotine patch for saltaholics.

LemonsCitrus. While your salt-loving taste buds may be crying foul, you can delight the sour part of your palate by adding more tart flavors to your food. I'm a big fan of those little plastic lemons and limes (Sicilia is a good brand) full of juice that you can keep in your fridge for a little squeeze of flavor when you don't feel like chopping up the whole fruit. I avoid the reconstituted juices, though—they taste a little funky to me. Think about what other veggies, sauces, or dishes could benefit from a little bit of juice. I love lemon juice on rice or couscous. It makes me totally forget about high-sodium soy sauce.

Other condiments. Other good options from the condiment aisle include mustard, vinegar, and no-salt-added ketchup to make your sandwiches perk up when you're using low-sodium lunch meat and bread (yep, you gotta check the bread labels too). You can get out the blender and make your own spreads by grinding up ingredients like roasted red peppers (low-sodium variety, of course), chickpeas for hummus, or whatever other foods your imagination can come up with. Who needs the salt?

Related Articles
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"10 Reasons to Eat Organically—and Locally"
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Questions about your workout program, diet, the latest newsletter, or anything wellness related? Chat with Denis Faye, Beachbody fitness and diet expert, in the Beachbody Chat Room on Monday, March 7th, at 3:00 PM ET, 12:00 PM PT.

If you'd like to ask a question or comment on this newsletter article, click here to add a comment in the newsletter review section or you can email us at mailbag@beachbody.com.

Check out our Fitness Advisor's responses to your comments in Steve Edwards' Mailbag on the Message Boards. If you'd like to receive Steve Edwards' Mailbag by email, click here to subscribe to Steve's Health and Fitness Newsletter. And if you'd like to know more about Steve's views on fitness, nutrition, and outdoor sports, read his blog, The Straight Dope, recently named one of the Top 50 blogs covering the sports industry by the Masters in Sports Administration.

Submit A CommentTell A Friend Bookmark and Share

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How Much Salt is Too Much?

Traditionally, salt has always been a major component of the American diet. But how much is too much? Let's take a look at our national addiction to sodium. Click below to learn more.

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Recipe: Low-Sodium Mixed Pickles

Recipe: Low-Sodium Mixed PicklesHere's a recipe for a colorful assortment of pickled veggies that have the tangy zip of cider vinegar and spices—without any added salt!

  • 1 cup diced cucumber
  • 1 onion, peeled and sliced
  • 1/2 cup sliced carrot
  • 1/2 cup diced bell pepper
  • 1 cup cauliflower florets
  • 1/2 cup chopped asparagus
  • 1/2 cup broccoli florets
  • 1-1/4 cups cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp. mustard seed
  • 1/2 tsp. celery seed

In a saucepan, combine vinegar, sugar, and spices. Bring to a boil. Add vegetables to pan and heat for 3 minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and chill. Makes 16 servings.

Note: Can be stored in the refrigerator for 1 month. For longer storage, sterilize two pint jars. Pack hot pickles to within 1/2 inch of top. Wipe off rim of jar, screw on top, and place in Dutch oven or other deep pan. Cover with water, bring to a boil, and heat for 10 minutes.

Preparation Time: 10 minutes

Cooking Time: 3 minutes

Nutritional Information (per serving):

Calories Protein Fiber Carbs Fat Total Saturated Fat
26 1 g 1 g 6 g 0 g 0 g

If you'd like to ask a question or comment on this newsletter article, click here to add a comment in the newsletter review section or you can email us at mailbag@beachbody.com.

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