Food & Fitness After 50: Foods for a Healthy Gut: Part 1

onion_home_graphicWe hear a lot about gut health, probiotics, prebiotics and foods that contain them, but it seems like there are more questions than answers on what it means to have a healthy gut. When I talk to older adults, gut health is bound to come up. I sat down with a gut health expert, Jo Ann Hattner, to ask some questions and seek clarity. Jo Ann has over thirty years of experience as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist in clinical academic settings primarily at Stanford University Medical Center where she focused on gastroenterology and nutrition. Currently, she is the owner of Hattner Nutrition in San Francisco, CA. She is author of the book Gut Insight: Probiotics and Prebiotics for Digestive Health and Well-Being.

We covered so much content in our interview, that this will be a two-part post so that you have time to “digest” all the material! The first post will discuss gut health and the gut microbiome,  and stay tuned next week for information about pre-and probiotic foods, and fermented foods, and dispel some myths about pre-and probiotics.

We hear a lot about a “healthy gut.” What makes a gut healthy?

Let’s start with the function of the gut. Basically, the gut is responsible for three big things: digestion, absorption, and elimination. So, your gut takes the foods and fluids you eat or drink and breaks them down into smaller pieces (digestion) so that we can transfer those smaller units into the blood stream (absorption) where they can travel to various parts of the body that need them. Then, the leftover parts that don’t get digested and absorbed get passed through the large intestine, the colon, where the fibers are fermented and the waste products are excreted (elimination.) A healthy gut tolerates a wide of foods and eliminates waste with ease. And, a healthy gut makes a healthy body. So, our gut nurtures our body, and to nurture our gut we need to eat foods that are rich in prebiotics and probiotics.

We also hear a lot about the human microbiome? What is the human microbiome and is it the same thing as the gut microbiome?

When you hear the words “human microbiome” it refers to all the microbial communities that live in and on our bodies. Scientists study the role they play in human health and disease. The gut microbiome or gut microbiota is the microbial communities that live in the gastrointestinal tract or the gut.

Many researchers and scientists consider the gut microbiome as the regulator or the control center of our biology. The gut microbiome has been shown to have an effect on immunity, obesity, inflammatory bowel diseases, and even central nervous system function. Emerging research tells us that our gut microbiome communicates with our brain (called the “gut-brain connection”). So, the phrase “gut instinct” may describe how our gut talks to our brain!

Can we change our gut microbiome by the foods we eat?

The basic pattern of our gut microbiome is established at birth and in early life. Babies delivered by C-section are exposed to different microflora than those delivered through the birth canal. And, breast milk contains important pre- and probiotics that help establish an infant’s gut microbiome. Even a parent’s caress and kiss transmit bacteria to the baby, as well as touches from friends and the family pet. Researchers believe that not only is the number of bacteria in our gut important, but also the diversity or having many different strains of bacteria, are best for good health. Currently, scientists don’t know if we can permanently change our gut microbiome or if the changes seen with eating probiotic foods just create a temporary change.

Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of this post, when we answer questions about specific foods that are rich in pre-and probiotics, fermented foods, and dispel some myths.

Jo Ann Hattner is one of the experts we interviewed for Food & Fitness After 50, available at Amazon.

Food & Fitness After 50: Attention Grandparents! Permission to Meddle in your Newborn Grandchild’s Feeding!

Now that I’ve got your attention, let me clarify. The permission to meddle is really a call to inform and educate your grandbaby’s mom or dad (i.e., your son, daughter, or daughter-in-law) about the early introduction of peanuts to reduce the incidence of peanut allergy.

A Real-World Detective Story

The history of introducing peanut foods in infants 4 to 6 months of age is as good as any osem-bamba-peanut-snack-e1364930961220detective story. Pediatricians in the U.K. noticed that peanut allergy was on the rise in Western countries. The prevalence of peanut allergy in children had doubled in the past ten years. It develops early in life and is rarely outgrown. And, as you probably know, it can be life-threatening. Here’s where the sleuthing comes in; the doctors noted that the risk of developing peanut allergy was ten times as high in Jewish children in the U.K. as it was in Jewish children in Israel. Israeli kids are given peanut-based foods early in life (like the peanut snack food, Bamba), whereas infants in the U.K. (and the U.S.) are not exposed to peanut foods until much later. What if early introduction to peanuts protected kids from developing an allergy?

Taking the LEAP

Thus, was born the Learning Early About Peanut Allergy Trial or LEAP. (The link takes you to the original study published in the New England Journal of Medicine; within this link is a short video that explains the study, so if you are interested, it is worth a click). The researchers studied two groups of infants; one group was at low risk of developing a peanut allergy, based on skin prick testing. In this group, almost 14% of infants who were not given peanuts developed an allergy, compared to less than 2% in the group that got peanuts. Another group of infants, determined to be a higher risk of developing allergies based on testing, had similar results. Thirty-five percent of the high-risk infants who did not get peanuts developed peanut allergy, compared to 10% in the group that got peanuts.

The American Academy of Pediatrics supports early introduction of peanuts

Currently, over a dozen international and national health organizations have developed consensus statements about preventing peanut allergy with early introduction. This includes the American Academy of Pediatrics and for more information, check out their Healthy Children website.

Tips to get started

protein powderSo, how do peanuts get introduced to infants? First, most babies fall into a low risk category, but if the infant has an egg allergy or severe eczema, talk to your pediatrician about the best way to introduce peanuts. For all others, which includes most babies, introduce peanut foods around 6 months of age, after they begin eating solid foods. Here are some tips to introduce peanut foods to the little peanuts!

  • Thin 2 teaspoons of peanut butter with a few teaspoons of hot water. Let it cool down before serving.
  • Stir in 2 teaspoons of powdered peanut butter into 2 Tablespoons of a food the baby has previously tolerated, like pureed fruit or veggies.
  • Blend 2 teaspoons of peanut butter into 2-3 Tablespoons of foods such as infant cereal, applesauce, yogurt, pureed chicken, or other foods the baby is tolerating.

Older infants who are teething might like a homemade peanut butter teething biscuit, a recipe from the National Peanut Board. And, of course, never give whole peanuts to kids under the age of 5 years or let them suck a lump of peanut butter off of a spoon.

Peanut butter teething biscuit (from National Peanut Board)

For more great tips and recipes, check out the information from the National Peanut Board.

And, for my last tip for grandparents, don’t meddle in feeding practices of your grandchildren once you tell your adult children about the peanut allergy thing!

Disclosure: I received a packet of information, including the peanut powder shown in this post, from the National Peanut Board, as an educational tool sent to registered dietitians. I was not asked to write this post, nor was I compensated to do so. I am gifting the contents of the package to my nephew and niece-in-law to help them introduce peanut foods to their new twin baby girls! I heard the researcher of the LEAP study present his data at a conference a couple of years ago and was fascinated by the research, so I am happy to have the opportunity to pass it along my newest great nieces!

For more information to keep yourself eating well, moving well, and being well, check out Food & Fitness After 50, available at Amazon.

Food & Fitness After 50: It is OK to rest

fit bitIt’s early afternoon and my Fit Bit shows less than 2,000 steps today. By this time of day, I have reached my goal of 10,000+ steps. To be clear, 10,000 steps (equivalent to about 5 miles of walking) isn’t a one-way ticket to good health, but using a tracker helps me stay active and activity is one part of the equation for good health.

But, for the past 3 days, I’ve had this deep pain in my neck muscle and activity makes it worse. It started a few weeks ago as a minor ache. I attributed to carrying my overweight, bloated purse on my shoulder, like many women do. I changed that habit, but the pain stayed with me. Then, on Saturday, after an exercise class and an hour of pulling weeds, the pain got deeper, sharper, and more persistent. The only thing that helped was rest and ice. Even little things caused pain, like folding laundry,  vacuuming the layer of dog hair off the carpet, or emptying the dishwasher.

It is hard for an active person to rest when injury strikes. We think we’re being lazy, that we’ll get out shape, that we’ll lose all the benefits we’ve accrued by exercise, and maybe  that we will like rest so much we’ll stay inactive forever! shoulderpain

But, common sense eventually prevails as it dawns on us that resting is good for injury recovery. As someone who is constantly on the go, it is hard to sit down and rest, but if rest means less pain, then I’ll stick with it for a few more days.

In Food & Fitness After 50, the last chapter is devoted to food and fitness strategies for illness and injury because we know that stuff is going to happen as we age…even for those of us who eat and move well. After hip replacement surgery, I gave up running but found enjoyment in cycling, low impact aerobics, and swimming. So, patience, and rest, is a virtue that I will practice for a few more days until I figure this out. Well, that and a trip to the doctor.

I know this rest is temporary because I exercise in a group setting; I will miss my 8 AM YMCA friends too much to let this go on forever! See you all soon!

“You know you’re getting old when all the names in your black book have M.D. after them.”  Arnold Palmer, U.S. Professional Golfer



Food & Fitness After 50: One Size Does Not Fit All

“It is good to be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brain falls out.”

Health500I first heard that line at a lecture early in my career, from the late physician, Victor Herbert. Dr. Herbert was an internationally known hematologist and nutrition scientist who was outspoken about nutrition nonsense. His book, Nutrition Cultism: Facts and Fictions, was published in 1984, long before the current wave of nutrition and wellness mania had taken hold.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that so many people are trying to eat healthfully and get fit. However, many people have taken it to an extreme and have turned food and fitness into a moral issue. To be clear, you are not a bad person if you ate ice cream last night and you are not necessarily a good person if you ate a kale salad. And, in this era of wellness, people are falling for crazy (and expense) stuff to enhance their wellness. I recently read about a rose quartz comb, selling for $160, claiming to clear away negative energy. (For a funny, scathing review of the rose quartz comb, see the SciBabe’s post. (Warning, explicit language alert, so if you are easily offended by rough language, you might want to skip it.)

Since writing Food & Fitness After 50, I’ve had many interesting and sometimes head-scratching conversations with people about nutrition. One person told me she was prepared not to believe anything in my book because she had her own “nutrition philosophy.” What ran through my mind was to tell her that nutrition was a science, not a philosophy, but I kept that thought to myself. It also made me wonder why someone with no training or formal education in nutrition science would say something like that to person who taught nutrition at a university for 30 years and has been a registered dietitian for more than 40 years? I think it gets to the point that people are taking great interest in health, which is a very good thing, but they think their path is not only the right path, but the only path.  And, to top it off there is a certain smugness to the way they inform you of their beliefs. It’s like the joke, “How do you know if someone is vegan? Don’t worry, they will tell you within the first 2 minutes of meeting them.”

Nutrition is a science, but it isn’t black and white. Like all science, it evolves as we learn more about the connection of food to health. There is no “best” diet, but there are a lot of “good” diets, and that is the point we make in our book. If you prefer vegetarianism or a Mediterranean-style diet, either can be right for you, but neither is “best.” Another consideration is your state of health. There is solid research to support the DASH eating plan for those with high blood pressure, for example.  There are national guidelines for treating obesity. A dietitian, who is trained in medical nutrition therapy, can help steer a person toward a plan that is tailored for their health. If you broke your leg chances are you wouldn’t Google “broken leg” and treat it with information you found on the Internet. But, when it comes to something as important as nutrition, people are willing to ask Google, talk to their neighbor, or listen to a celebrity and believe whatever they are told.

Sustainability is a hot issue for most people, but they may not think of sustainability when it comes to their diet. For a healthy eating plan to be successful it should be something you can sustain for a lifetime. When the book, Wheat Belly, was popular, I know people who followed the plan, shunning wheat as an evil food. (How do you know if someone was following the Wheat Belly diet? Don’t worry, they will tell you in the first 2 minutes). But, giving up wheat for life isn’t sustainable, and it isn’t necessary either.

One of my daily reads is ConscienHealth. It is a smart, thought-provoking blog that puts nutrition, specifically focused on obesity, into perspective. The latest post on the dangers of moral certitude summarizes the issue:

 “In the final analysis, a dose of humility might be best. Nobody has perfect dietary advice to offer. Nobody has cures for obesity. But plenty of smart people have good ideas to share. Moral certitude is not as persuasive as good science for deflecting weak ideas and weeding out the hucksters.”



Food & Fitness After 50: Beat the heat hydration tips

This post was written by Dr. Bob Murray, co-author of Food & Fitness After 50, and hydration and exercise expert.

satchel-paige-angie-villegasFamed baseball player Satchel Paige’s career spanned from 1924 to 1966, incredible longevity for any athlete.  In addition to being an amazing pitcher, Satchel’s unique perspective on life produced many memorable quotes, including “Age is a question of mind over matter.  If you don’t mind, it don’t  matter.”  Also, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?”  Both quotes speak to the importance of maintaining an optimistic, positive attitude about aging, although our bodies naturally change as we age.  Some of those changes influence our ability to stay well hydrated, especially so during the hot summer weather.

What does staying hydrated mean?

It is important to point out that staying hydrated—drinking enough each day to prevent significant dehydration and its consequences—is usually not a problem for the vast majority of older adults.  Although it is true that our thirst mechanism becomes less sensitive as we age, that change does not typically increase the risk of dehydration.  That may sound counterintuitive but it turns out that humans of any age do not rely solely on thirst as the primary gauge for when to drink.

Drinking at meals accounts for most of our daily fluid intake, along with the spontaneous drinking that occurs throughout the day—stopping at the water fountain and drinking coffee, tea, bottled water, and soft drinks at work or while watching TV are examples of spontaneous drinking.  The fact is that thirst plays a minor role in our daily fluid intake and that is especially true for those older adults who are inactive.  For those reasons, the reduced thirst sensitivity that occurs as we age does not have a major influence on our day-to-day hydration.  However, as with all things in life, there are exceptions.water

The dangers of dehydration

When older adults fall ill, suffer immobilizing injuries, or fight diseases, the loss of thirst sensitivity can contribute to dehydration because normal drinking at meals and spontaneously throughout the day is completely disrupted.  Age-related loss of thirst sensitivity can also be a problem during heat waves or with prolonged sweating during endurance exercise, long hikes, and yard work when sweating results in dehydration.

Periodic heat waves cause a disproportionate number of deaths among adults over age 50, deaths that occur mostly from heart failure, not from heat stroke.  Prolonged exposure to the heat creates enormous strain on the heart and blood vessels to deliver much more blood to the skin to aid in heat loss. Dehydration makes matters worse because the sweating and inadequate drinking that lead to dehydration reduce the total volume of blood, placing even greater strain on the heart.  For those with preexisting heart, lung, or kidney disease, that strain can simply be too much to handle, resulting in death.  Older adults who are ill, out of shape, lack air conditioning, and have limited access to fluids are at greatest risk during heat waves.

         On June 8, 1982, Leroy “Satchel” Paige died of heart failure and emphysema at age 75.  Satchel’s death occurred after a power failure at his home in Kansas City.  Although there was no heat wave at that time in Kansas City, the maximum temperature that day was 86 and the maximum relative humidity was 93%, a combination that would make it feel like 108.

Aging not only reduces our thirst sensitivity and prolongs the time it takes us to fully rehydrate after we become dehydrated as a result of physical activity or heat exposure, we also sweat less, our heart’s capacity to pump blood is less, we deliver less blood to the skin, and we are less able to divert blood from our internal organs into the main circulation, all of which makes it tougher to cope with the heat.

How to win at hydration

While that may sound like uniformly bad news, we can avoid the dire consequences by staying physically fit, acclimating to the heat, and reminding ourselves of the importance of drinking more, particularly whenever we sweat.  Getting outdoors in warm weather may initially feel uncomfortable, but our bodies will gradually acclimate over time.  That acclimation improves our sweating and our hydration because acclimation prompts us to drink more throughout the day.

Additional good news is that for maintaining hydration, virtually all fluids count.  Okay, that advice does not include shots of tequila or other liquors, but mixed drinks do count toward daily hydration, as do coffee, tea, colas, energy drinks, beer, and wine.  As with food, consuming a wide variety of fluids during the day is important for overall nutrition and for hydration, both of which are vital for good health. Summer fruits and veggies are high in water content, so snacking on grapes, watermelon, cantaloupe, berries, summer squash, tomatoes, and cucumbers deliver both water and nutrients.

For more on the importance of hydration and a guide to finding your individual hydration needs, see Dr. Murray’s chapter on hydration in Food & Fitness After 50.