TIME health

15 Tiny Tweaks for an Instant Health Makeover

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We’ve compiled a list of super-simple healthy tweaks you can realistically make. Really. Like, starting tomorrow.

This post originally appeared on Refinery29.com.

It always struck me as slightly odd that we make health resolutions in January. Sure, a new year is a theoretical blank slate — and our holiday habits provide us with ample inspiration for things we’d very much like to change about the way we treat our bodies. And, it helps that everyone around us is making the same resolutions (which, coincidentally, are identical to the ones we made the year before).

But, I’d like to argue that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the New Year’s Resolution model: We set ourselves up to fail by committing to massive life changes in the middle of winter. Environmental factors contribute to a wide range of physical and psychological symptoms, such as lower energy and decreased motivation, that undermine even our best efforts in the colder months. Sure, we’d all like to eat cleaner and get to spin class a few mornings a week. But, starting that habit in 20-degree weather? Good luck. And, as we’ve said many times before, the more ambitious your resolution, the less likely you are to accomplish it — baby steps, it seems, are really the way to go.

With these thoughts in mind, we’ve compiled a list of super-simple healthy tweaks you can realistically make. Really. Like, starting tomorrow. Look at it this way: At this point in the year, you’re already eating better. Why not take your wellness game up a few more notches? Your body will thank you when January 1 rears its ugly head once again.

Tweak: Ditch artificial sweeteners

Switching out the sugar in our morning coffee for Splenda and Stevia seems like a no-brainer — they provide the sweetness we crave without any of the metabolic chaos that comes with a sugar habit. But, Shira Lenchewski, registered dietitian and nationally recognized nutrition expert, says that while the fake stuff seems better for your calorie intake, you’re actually making it harder to avoid real sugar. “Artificial sweeteners like Splenda contain a synthetic chemical called Sucralose, which is 600 times sweeter than natural sugar. Because Sucralose is so much sweeter than natural sugar, it overstimulates the taste buds, causing people to crave intensely sweet foods throughout the day.” And, recent research suggests that sucralose itself may be messing with your body’s insulin response. Try reaching for an apple to go with your coffee: Not only will it neutralize your sugar yen, but the fiber will help keep future cravings at bay throughout the day.

Tweak: Get the right amount of sleep

We all know how important it is to get enough sleep. As New York-based physician Dr. Frank Lipman puts it, “From serotonin production to blood sugar management, immunity, and heart health, sleep impacts every aspect of your health.” Says internationally recognized cardiologist Dr. Kevin Campbell, “Sleep is essential for our bodies to recharge and for our brains to repair important pathways associated with memory and learning new things.” But, as Campbell points out, more isn’t always better. He points to new research suggesting that the “perfect” amount of sleep may be 7 hours a night — although some people need more than others. Experiment to figure out how much sleep makes your body feel its best, and then commit to that number of hours — even if it means resisting the urge to hit snooze.

Tweak: Wash your hands

Here’s an easy one. Wash your hands more — especially after using the ATM. According to recent research, “ATMs harbor the same organisms seen in a public toilet,” Campbell explains. “It is important to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after touching ATM buttons in order to avoid exposure to nasty microbes and [to avoid carrying] them into your car or home.”

But, be sure to look for a soap that’s triclosan-free. A common ingredient in anti-microbial soaps, triclosan has been shown to seriously mess with hormone production and increase the risk of breast cancer. Luckily, there’s no need to reach for an anti-microbial: Research shows that products claiming to have anti-microbial properties are not better at preventing disease than regular old hand soap.

(MORE: The Truth About Your Post-Workout Snack)

 

Tweak: Snack smarter

We’re all familiar with the 3 p.m. snack attack — and how it can wreak havoc on our clean-eating intentions. But, as Campbell points out, there’s a right way and a wrong way to snack. “Research shows that eating two to three healthy snacks throughout the day can improve your metabolism, improve weight control, and reduce obesity. Snacks should be limited to 100 to 200 calories and should be rich in nutrients, such as fruits and veggies.” Lipman suggests incorporating hummus and avocado — the healthy fats in each go a long way toward keeping you full until your next meal.

Tweak: Stop “thirsty”

We’ve heard it before: Adequate hydration is essential to proper function of every body system, especially in the summer. But, it’s all too easy to get dehydrated — as Lipman points out, “if you wait until you’re thirsty to drink, then you’re already dehydrated.” Instead of letting that dry-mouth feeling come on, get into the routine of drinking eight to 10 ounces of water every hour or so, whether you’re thirsty or not. And, if you need extra incentive to keep refueling, try out a new hydration habit — flavor your water with lemon, cucumber, herbs, or in-season berries.

Tweak: Try jogging

We know, we know: Who wants to run in face-melting heat? Well, it doesn’t take much of a step up in the cardio department to generate a major net health benefit. According to Campbell, “Recent research shows that even jogging for as little as five minutes a day has been shown to reduce risk for heart disease, prolong life, and decrease heart attack risk.” Think about running around the block once or twice after dinner. In addition to the cardiovascular health benefits, getting your heart pumping will help kickstart your metabolism, giving your digestive system a serious boost.

Tweak: Increase probiotic intake

From Greek yogurt to kombucha, it doesn’t get much hipper these days than probiotics. Luckily, there’s some health science to back up this particular fad. As board-certified internist and weight-loss specialist Dr. Sue Decotiis points out, “Probiotics are a crucial part of a daily routine of healthy eating, supplementation, and physical activity. Probiotics help naturally “cleanse” our bodies by processing and eliminating toxins from our digestive tract. When our digestive tract is functioning efficiently, so are our hormones and metabolism.”

But, there’s more to the probiotic party than yogurt. Lipman suggest that you “develop a taste for…unpasteurized, fermented foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir, [which] feed your gut with trillions of healthy bacteria.” Try to incorporate one fermented food or drink into each day to keep your gut biome in tip-top shape.

Tweak: Replenish B vitamins

Winter isn’t the only time to be concerned about your vitamin intake. One easy wellness fix: Make sure you’re getting enough B vitamins. As Dr. Decotiis points out, B vitamins, like folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12, are essential for proper metabolic function, but they get depleted quickly and must be consumed daily. And, alcohol depletes B vitamins in the body — “All the more reason to increase intake especially after a long summer of social drinking.” Rather than popping supplements, load up on fruits and veggies (especially dark greens like kale), whole grains, fish, and eggs.

(MORE: 7 Harmful Diet Lies You Probably Believe)

Tweak: Cut back on alcohol

If you’re anything like us, you’ve been partying just a little bit harder these past few months — and we don’t blame you. After all, there’s nothing quite like drinking outside on a warm evening. But, consider cooling it a bit on the booze for the rest of the season. As Dr. Decotiis points out, “Besides the obvious that alcohol adds more to your daily caloric intake, it also affects hunger hormones.” Specifically, research has shown that alcohol decreases the amount of leptin, an appetite-suppressing hormone made by your endocrine system. This makes it harder for your body to register that it’s had enough to eat — leading you to overconsumption.

Tweak: Replace nonfat yogurt

In the past few years, nonfat yogurt manufacturers have made a killing on our collective fear of that short little “F” word. But, it turns out that avoiding fat like a deadly plague isn’t doing us as much good as we might think. Because it takes longer to digest, fat stays in your stomach longer, helping to keep you full after meals. And, as Lenchewski points out, “One of the most pervasive food myths is the idea that consuming dietary fat makes you fat. But, truthfully, consuming any macronutrient (carbohydrate, protein, or fat) in excess will result in weight gain. The fact is, fat adds flavor, and when it’s removed, sweeteners and artificial flavors are typically added in its place.” Then there’s the recent research suggesting that full-fat dairy is better for reducing body fat than nonfat options. Go ahead: indulge. Your metabolism will thank you.

Tweak: Plate your food

Research has already shown that the size and color of your plate can make a big difference in terms of how much you eat. But, here’s another plating-related trick to consider. While many of us go out of our way on presentation to impress our guests, pulling out all the tips and tricks we’ve learned from our Food Network marathons, we tend to get lazy when it’s just us. Think about spending a little time on the aesthetics of your dinners for one. A bit of effort can go a long way toward teaching us to be mindful of what we’re putting into our bodies. Lenchewski says, “When food is plated beautifully and thoughtfully, it makes the meal or snack more appetizing and enjoyable, and as research suggests, can even prevent overeating.”

Tweak: Put food away

Even when you try to eat well by cooking something healthy, you’re not out of the woods. Sometimes, there’s nothing more tempting than that second helping. But, if you find yourself reaching for a refill — whether you’re hungry or not — here’s a no-brainer fix. Board-certified internist Dr. Pat Salber suggests removing temptation altogether. “After you plate your food, immediately put the rest in the fridge so you won’t be tempted to help yourself to seconds.” Out of sight, out of mind. Added bonus: This way, cleanup gets done beforedinner.

Tweak: Set goals for fall

One way to deal with the seemingly inevitable downturn in wellness in the fall and winter? Be deliberate about setting specific goals before bad weather (or seasonal affective disorder) gives you an excuse to crank up the lazy. Dr. Decotiis suggests a proactive approach to your wellness goals by taking accountability before things start to go south. “Start tracking your eating and exercise habits again, and you might be surprised with your findings. If you’ve fallen off the wagon, there’s no better time to get back on track than right now. You’ll go into the fall and winter feeling better about yourself.”

Tweak: Befriend vinegar

Vinegar has long been a favorite in alternative medicine circles for treating everything from acne to ear infections. But, one proven benefit should take the sour stuff into the spotlight for good. Apple cider vinegar has been shown to help regulate blood sugar, which helps keep your most intense food urges under control. Lenchewski says, “Vinegar helps fight sugar cravings by inhibiting the hunger hormone (ghrelin) and preventing blood sugar from spiking after a meal.” Try incorporating ACV into your daily routine with an afternoon cocktail of 1 tablespoon of vinegar mixed with 1 teaspoon of honey and 8 ounces of grapefruit juice.

(MORE: 6 Hydration Myths And What You Need to Know)

Tweak: Re-think dessert

Eating better doesn’t have to mean giving up dessert. It’s all about putting a little bit of thought into how you indulge. As Lipman points out, “The quickest way to whip up a sweet and healthy treat is to make your own popsicles. Freeze your favorite smoothies or juice with a few chunks of fruit or berries.” Even better? Throw a little kale into the mix for a super-healthy, refreshing, and fiber-packed dessert.

 

TIME Diet/Nutrition

5 Tricks to Avoid Being Hungry All the Time

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Once, one of my clients half-jokingly requested an exorcism from the demon possessing her body: hunger. Kind of a gruesome analogy but, truth be told, it’s fairly accurate considering how out of control she felt. When my clients struggle like this, I often say I wish I could wave a magic wand to make it all better, which of course I can’t. But what I can do is offer some tried and true advice to effectively rein in appetite and help regain a sense of balance. The five strategies below are tops for doing just that, and each also has the power to enhance your overall health. Win-win!

Make sweating fun

Have you ever found yourself hungrier after working out, and then “ate back” more calories than you burned exercising? It’s a common phenomenon, and the trick to breaking the cycle may just be choosing ways of being active that feel like fun. In a recent Cornell University study, researchers asked two groups of adults to take a two kilometer walk before lunch or a snack. Those who were told they had been on an exercise walk wound up eating 35% more chocolate pudding for dessert at lunch and 124% more M&Ms at snack time than those who were told they had been on a fun, scenic walk.

Health.com:25 Exercises You Can Do Anywhere

Other research shows that intense exercise—sweat sessions that are perceived as work—can lead to eating more overall. In other words, a “no pain, no gain” mentality may wind up wreaking havoc with your appetite. If you’re in a similar boat, try mixing things up. Trade grueling workouts for activities that get your heart rate up but seem like play. Think dancing, hiking, roller skating, and swimming. Many of my clients find that even if they burn fewer calories, engaging in recreational activities often helps them lose more weight, because they don’t experience rebound hunger spikes.

Get enough sleep

Catching too few ZZZs is notorious for not only ramping up hunger, but also increasing cravings for junk food. One study from University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center found that too little sleep triggered excessive eating and weight gain, and getting more sleep slashed the consumption of carbs and fat, leading to weight loss. Another from the University of Chicago found that getting 4.5 hours of sleep (rather than 8.5) ups hunger and appetite, especially in the early afternoon.

In addition to causing appetite craziness, sleep deprivation has been tied to a number of health problems, including weakened immunity, and a greater risk of type 2 diabetes, depression, and heart disease. For these reasons, in my opinion, making sleep a priority may even be more important than exercise for weight loss. If you’re falling short like most people, read up on ways to improve your slumber.

Health.com:14 Reasons You’re Always Tired

Drink more water

Research backs what I find to be true for myself and my clients: drinking plenty of water can help manage appetite. One study found that people who drink about seven cups of water per day eat nearly 200 fewer daily calories compared to those who gulp less than one glass. Another found that when adults drank two cups of water right before meals, they ate 75 to 90 fewer calories. A second study by the same researchers showed that when two groups of people followed the same calorie-limited diet for 12 weeks, those who downed two cups of water before meals lost about 15.5 pounds compared to about 11 pounds for the water-free bunch.

Finally, a German study showed that a 16-ounce dose of water resulted in a 30% increase in metabolic rate within 10 minutes. The effect peaked 30 to 40 minutes after consumption, but was sustained for more than an hour. To take advantage of the benefits, drink about 16 ounces of H2O four times a day. If you dislike the taste of plain water, spruce it up with wedges of lemon or lime, fresh mint leaves, cucumber slices, fresh grated ginger, or a bit of mashed fruit.

Eat on a schedule

Your body loves consistency, which is why in my own personal experience, as well as my clients’, eating at the same times every day can go a long way in regulating appetite. Try eating breakfast within one hour of waking up and spacing your remaining meals about three to five hours apart. In addition to consistent meal times, strive for a steady meal structure in terms of the foods and proportions you include.

Health.com:15 Ways to Lose Weight Without Trying

For example, I recommend always including: produce, lean protein, plant-based fat (like avocado), and a small portion of a healthy starch. I’ve seen that mixing up the foods you choose within these categories, while keeping the types and quantities comparable, can have a huge impact on regulating hunger, supporting sustained energy, and creating a predictable return of hunger, almost like clockwork. In other words, when your meals are all over the place, it’s much easier to feel hungry all the time or confuse true hunger with boredom or other emotions.

Learn how to deal with stress

For most of my clients, stress is the number one eating trigger. And research backs the old adage: “stressed is desserts spelled backwards.” One recent animal study found that female monkeys chronically exposed to stress overate calorie-rich foods, unlike their calm counterparts. They also ate more throughout the day and evening, while the chilled-out chimps naturally restricted their noshing to daytime hours only. This behavior parallels what I see in so many people, and until they find effective ways to reduce stress, emotional eating is a difficult pattern to break.

Health.com:25 Surprising Ways Stress Affects Your Health

The best place to start: stop beating yourself up. Instead of berating yourself for not having enough willpower, acknowledge that when your stress hormones are surging, you’re programmed to reach for chips or chocolate. Speak kindly to yourself, and shift your energy toward testing out positive ways to cope, like listening to guided meditation, venting to a friend, spending time outdoors, reading, stretching, drawing, or whatever gives you a mini-vacation from the intensity of your emotions. That strategy, rather than “dieting,” is a much better way to set yourself up for successful weight control and better overall health.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Obesity

Siblings More Likely Than Parents to Influence Child Obesity

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And the association is even stronger for siblings of the same gender

A new study released Tuesday reported children are more than twice as likely to be obese when they have an obese sibling compared to when they have an obese parent.

The study, which will be published in the October issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, showed the likelihood that a child is obese is even greater when they have a sibling of the same gender.

In one-child families, an obese parent meant more than double the risk that the child would be obese. In households with two children, this held true for the older child but not the younger sibling.

“Younger children look up to their big brother or sister for behavioral cues, often seeking their approval; and siblings may spend more time each other than with their parents, often eating and playing sports together,” study author Mark Pachucki said in a statement.

Pachuki, who is an instructor at the Mongan Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital, said he initially expected parental obesity would have a stronger association than sibling obesity due to parents’ important role in children’s eating habits, but he was wrong.

Researchers looked at almost 2,000 respondents to the Family Health Habits Survey.

TIME Nutrition

How Unhealthy Are Churro Ice Cream Sandwiches?

LA's hottest new dessert may be delicious, but how many calories does it include?

Move over, cronut.

Last summer, Dominique Ansel’s croissant-slash-donut took the East Coast by storm. This summer, the west coast has its own trendy dessert hydrid: the churro ice cream sandwich, a signature snack at Sylvia Yoo’s pop-up pastry company Churro Borough in Los Angeles.

Yoo makes all parts of each sandwich herself, according to Chow. She offers four standard flavors—ranging from vanilla to Mexican hot chocolate—and several seasonal specialties such as orange creamsicle and panna cotta. But the real question we’re all waiting for: How healthy are these delicious-sounding desserts?

TIME asked Alyse Levine, a registered dietician who lives in L.A., to help us crunch the nutritional numbers. An ice cream sandwich with a few ounces of churro would probably include about 410-500 calories and 22-26 mg of total fat, she says. About 10-12 grams of the fat would likely be saturated. The desserts also have 45-56 grams of carbohydrates, 25-30 grams of sugar and 300-450 mg of sodium.

But Levine was eager to say she did not advocate against the churro ice cream sandwich. “While these numbers may seem high to some … I not a proponent of low-calorie diet versions of real foods,” says Levine. “Therefore, I see no problem with people enjoying these desserts occasionally.”

Churro Borough is scheduled to participate in several food festivals this summer.

TIME Diet & Fitness

12 Foods That Make You Eat Less

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When you’re trying to lose weight, cutting back on the amount you eat is a given—but feeling hungry all the time is one of the major reasons why most diets fail within a week. Still, you can silence your grumbling stomach without consuming extra calories. In fact, eating certain foods sends a signal to your brain that you’re done eating, and quiets your appetite. Shut out the ice cream pint that’s calling your name by eating these healthy and satisfying foods.

Apples

Chomp on an apple approximately a half hour before a meal—the fiber and water from the apple will fill you up, so you’ll eat less, says Debra Wein, RD, president of Wellness Workdays, a leading provider of worksite wellness programs.

Avocado

Eating half of an avocado with your lunch may help you feel full for the rest of the afternoon, according to a study published in Nutrition Journal. Women who did that felt 22% more satisfied and had a 24% lower desire to snack three hours later than on days they ate a calorically equivalent lunch without the avocado.

Health.com:20 Best Foods for Fiber

Beans, chickpeas, lentils

Dietary pulses such as chickpeas, lentils, beans, and peas are protein-rich superfoods that also pack in fiber, antioxidants, B vitamins, and iron. Eating more of them may also help you control your appetite. A recent meta-analysis published in the journal Obesity found that people were 31% more satisfied after a meal when it included pulses.

Soup

In a Penn State study, people who slurped a bowl of low-calorie, broth-based soup before their lunch entrées reduced their total calorie intake at the meal by 20%. “Soups can take the edge of your appetite since they take up a lot of volume in your stomach, but with very few calories,” says Beth Saltz, RD, owner of nutritionskitchen.com.

Pickles

Pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, and other fermented foods have short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), and recent research in the Annals of The New York Academy of Sciences found that they help strengthen the bond between the gut and the brain. SCFAs stimulate production of hormones that cross the blood-brain barrier and improve appetite signaling. Fermented foods also boast probiotics, the healthy bacteria that help digestion. Some experts believe probiotics may reduce appetite and aid weight loss, though research is inconclusive.

Chili powder

You may already know that capsaicin, the compound in chilis that gives them their kick, fires up your metabolism. Recent research from Maastricht University in the Netherlands shows that adding heat to your meal may also control your appetite. The study, which was published in the journal Appetite, found that adding 1/4 tsp of chili pepper to each meal increased satiety and fullness. What’s more, some participants were only allowed to consume 75% of their recommended daily calorie intake, but didn’t feel any more desire to continue eating after dinner than those who were given 100% of their daily calories.

Health.com:27 Best Foods for Weight Loss

Dark chocolate

When you’re craving something sweet, reach for dark chocolate. Research suggests dark chocolate can help reduce blood pressure and protect the heart and brain. It’s also more filling than milk chocolate and may help curb cravings for both sweet and salty foods, according to a study in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes. In fact, participants consumed 17% fewer calories at a meal following a dose of dark chocolate.

Eggs

Starting your day with eggs will leave you satisfied until lunch. The power’s in the protein: research from the University of Missouri at Columbia suggests that eating a 300-calorie breakfast made up of 30 to 39 grams of protein (think: eggs and sausage) reduces hunger pangs and increases fullness during the time between breakfast and lunch. What’s more, the research revealed that high-protein breakfast eaters consume fewer calories throughout the day.

Nuts

Nuts are another filling food that may help you eat less. In a British Journal of Nutrition study, obese women who paired either 1.5 ounces of peanuts or 3 tablespoons of peanut butter with Cream of Wheat cereal and orange juice felt fuller for up to 12 hours after finishing breakfast than those who didn’t eat the peanut products. “Nuts are essentially designed by nature to control appetite because they’re rich in healthy unsaturated fat, along with bonus protein and fiber,” says Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, Health contributing nutrition editor. Together, the three nutrients slow digestion and regulate blood sugar when combined with carbs like fruit, oatmeal, or brown rice.

Health.com:20 Best Foods to Eat for Breakfast

Oatmeal

Consider ditching cereal for warm, gooey oatmeal. Oatmeal will keep you feeling fuller longer, suggests a study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. Participants were served 250 calories of cereal or oatmeal with 113 calories of milk. The oatmeal-eaters were satiated longer, and they also experienced a greater reduction in hunger and a decreased desire to eat compared to ready-to-eat cereal eaters. Why the difference? Oatmeal is higher in fiber and protein and also has higher amounts of beta-glucan–the sugars that give oatmeal its heart-healthy properties, hydration, and molecular weight compared to ready-to-eat cereals.

Water

Being low on H2O can trick you into believing you’re hungry. Why? The symptoms of hunger are similar to those of being dehydrated: low energy, reduced cognitive function, and poor mood. So next time you’re craving an afternoon snack, drink a tall glass of water and wait 10 minutes. Chances are, your hunger pangs will pass, and you’ll have saved hundreds of calories.

Health.com:14 Surprising Causes of Dehydration

Whey protein

Dairy whey—one of the two proteins that make up milk products—may be the most filling type of protein. According to a study published in the journal Appetite, people who drank whey protein ate 18% less two hours later than those who had consumed a carbohydrate drink. Use whey protein powder to give smoothies a protein punch.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Don’t Drink the Maple Water: Which Health Drinks Are Actually Healthy

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How healthy are these super hyped drinks? AFP via Getty Images

The popularity—and price point—of beverages touting miracle health benefits is exploding, but science doesn’t always back up the hype

Liquid nutrition is having a moment. From kombucha teas to high-priced “cleanses,” grocery stores are devoting whole aisles to a rash of new beverages that claim to energize your mind, trim your waistline, and supercharge your body. But while some offer legitimate health perks, “no drink is going to offer you a magic bullet against whatever ails you,” promises Mayo Clinic’s Katherine Zeratsky, RD, LD.

Here’s what Zeratsky and other nutrition experts have to say about the trendiest health drinks on the market:

Coconut Water
The Claim: Billed as “Mother Nature’s sports drink,” coconut water is a dehydration-slaking, nutrient-restoring alternative to plain H20 or more “synthetic” workout recovery beverages.
The Cost: $3 and up for roughly 16 oz
The Truth: Coconut water contains a lot of potassium—more than a medium-sized banana—as well as electrolytes, which help your body absorb H20, explains Manuel Villacorta, MS, RD, author of Peruvian Powerfoods. But if you’re refueling after a serious workout, coconut water alone won’t be enough to replenish what your body has lost, he adds. And if you haven’t been exercising? Don’t let the word “water” fool you into thinking this beverage isn’t caloric, Zeratsky warns. “People tend to lose track of the calories they consume in beverages. But if you’re drinking a bottle or two of coconut water a day instead of water, that extra 100 or 200 calories will add up,” she stresses.

Almond Milk

The claim: A healthy, humane alternative to cow’s milk.

The cost: $4 for a 65-oz carton

The truth: All “milks” are not created equal—especially when it comes to protein, explains Jennifer Koslo, PhD, RD. “Almond milk has about one gram of protein per serving, compared to eight or nine grams in cow’s milk,” Koslo says. Almond milk also lacks dairy’s branch amino acids, which—along with protein—aid muscle health and growth, Villacorta adds. If you’re lactose intolerant and need something to splash on your morning cereal or in your coffee, almond milk is a good choice, Koslo says. “But even if your almond milk is fortified with vitamin D and other nutrients, you’re not getting the same benefits you would from cow’s milk,” she adds. For those worried about the humane treatment of cows, stick to local and organic dairy products, Villacorta suggests.

Kombucha

The claim: Thanks to its bacteria content, this fermented “probiotic” tea bolsters your immune and digestive systems by supporting the microorganisms that live in your gut.

The cost: $4 and up for 16 oz

The truth: “More and more, we’re learning about the value of bacteria and probiotics to maintain a healthy population of microorganisms in our digestive systems,” explains Stephanie Maxson, MS, RD, a senior clinical dietician at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Kombucha tea—as well as other fermented foods like yogurt and kefir—are good sources of probiotic microorganisms, so they may support your digestive or immune systems. But at this point, it’s not clear which types of bacteria are necessary for optimal digestive health, Maxson says. “Because everyone’s microbiome is unique, people will react differently to different strains of bacteria.” Also, there’s some concern that people living with illness—particularly AIDS or cancer—may be at greater risk for infection from the bacteria in unpasteurized, fermented drinks like kombucha tea, Maxson says. If you’re healthy and don’t mind the cost, she recommends drinking no more than an ounce or two of kombucha a day. “It usually comes in a big bottle, which has enough bacteria to last you a week,” she says.

Green Juice

The claim: There are many varieties of this “super” beverage, but nearly all tout the same benefit: a huge helping of healthful fruits and veggies packed into a convenient, easy-to-swig package.

The cost: $3.50 (and up) for 15 oz

The Truth: Plant enzymes oxidate quickly, so your drink has to be really fresh for you to get all the ingredients’ nutritional benefits, Villacorta explains. As a result, a lot of pre-bottled, commercially sold green juices aren’t fresh enough to offer you the most bang for your buck. And even the fresh-squeezed options won’t provide the full range of nutrients you’d get from eating whole fruits and vegetables, he says.

Chia Seed Juice

The claim: Chia seeds are loaded with fiber, which supports digestion, as well as omega-3s, protein, calcium, magnesium, and antioxidants.

The cost: $3.50 for 10 oz

The truth: Chia seeds are good sources of fiber, and also contain healthy vitamins, nutrients, and some omega-3 fatty acids, says Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. But these drinks tend to have a lot of other ingredients—like sugar—that make them high in carbs and calories, she adds. Also, it’s a lot cheaper to make your own chia seed drinks, Koslo adds. “Just add the seeds to a smoothie and save yourself some money,” she recommends.

Juice Cleanses

The claim: Whether you last a day or a week, a juice cleanse can supercharge your energy levels, help you lose weight, flush out your clogged digestive system, and sharpen your brain.

The cost: $7 to $10 for 16 oz

The truth: Drinking the juice of a fruit or vegetable is not as good for you as eating it whole, Zeratsky says. “Nearly all the fiber and a lot of the nutrients are contained in the flesh, so don’t let the marketing fool you into thinking drinking a juice is the same as eating the whole vegetable,” she warns. And while these cleanses are convenient, they’re also a lot more expensive than buying whole fruits and vegetables, Bowerman adds. “If people can afford cleanses and they want to drink them once in a while to supplement their regular diet, that’s fine. But they shouldn’t be consumed on their own for extended periods, because they’re not nutritionally complete,” she explains.

Aloe Vera Drinks

The claim: They support immune and digestive health, and aid weight loss.

The cost: $2.50 for 16 oz

The truth: “I’ve heard anecdotally that aloe vera can be good for digestion, but there’s really not much science behind it,” Koslo explains. She says there are also some reports of complications like diarrhea and cramps from drinking too much of these beverages. “No dietician is going to tell you you need to get aloe vera in your diet,” she adds. “If you want to drink it, there may be some benefits. But I would do so sparingly.”

Hemp Milk

The claim: Another vegan alternative to dairy milk, this beverage provides omega-3s and plant-based nutrients.

The cost: $6 for 32 oz

The truth: Like almond milk, you shouldn’t think of this hemp-based option as a comparable replacement for cow’s milk, Bowerman says. “Most are not as high in protein.” On the other hand, hemp milk does offer you some omega-3 fatty acids, although not the super-beneficial type found in fish, Koslo adds. “If you have a milk allergy, this could be a good alternative. But you’re not going to get the same protein and nutrients that mammalian milk offers,” she explains.

Maple Water

The claim: It’s low-cal and loaded with super-hydrating “bioactive compounds” including vitamins, nutrients, and polyphenols—some of which promote thyroid and bone health.

The cost: Roughly $3.50 for 11 oz (although it’s not yet widely available)

The truth: The product is so new that there’s little research out there on its health benefits, Villacorta says. And while there’s some research touting maple syrup as a source of healthy antioxidant compounds, that doesn’t mean maple water will offer the same compounds in nutritionally significant quantities, he says. Maple water is supposedly high in antioxidants as well as manganese, which assists thyroid health, bone strength, and vitamin absorption, says Lilian Cheung, RD, of the Harvard School of Public Health. “But these claims are not verified by scientific studies,” Cheung adds.

TIME health

Have Your Own Year of No Sugar

Sugar cubes with one standing out in the middle
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Read the directions, ask in restaurants—and, above all, drink water

Dr. Robert Lustig is an unassuming-looking fellow with a medium build, gray hair and a laser-like focus. He’s good with Power Point and is comfortable throwing about phrases like “multivariate linear regression analysis.” As his YouTube video “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” opens, he stands at a lectern in an anonymous looking hall, looking every bit like that professor whose chemistry lectures put you to sleep every time. You’d never suspect that a 90-minute educational lecture from this man could generate some three and a half million hits, but that’s just what happened.

In the first 17 minutes, Lustig calmly drops facts like precision bombs:

  • as a society we all weigh 25 pounds more than our counterparts did 25 years ago
  • even as our total fat consumption has gone down, our obesity has continued to accelerate
  • Americans are currently consuming 63 pounds per person of high fructose corn syrup per year

But it isn’t until minute 20 that Lustig throws down the gauntlet: “My charge before the end of tonight is to demonstrate that fructose is a poison.”

And thus was born our family’s Year of No Sugar.

The concept was simple: We were not eating added sugar. We would not eat it in the house, we would not eat it with a mouse. No white sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, molasses, maple syrup, honey, evaporated cane syrup, agave, brown rice syrup, artificial sweeteners of all stripes and no…not even fruit juice. Naturally occurring sugar — such as that contained in a piece of fruit — was fine, containing as it did all the beneficial fiber and micronutrients, and naturally limited the amount we ate — you’d get full before you could eat enough fructose to worry about.

But, in the interest of family harmony, we would have some exceptions too, number one being: As a family, we would pick one dessert per month to have which contained sugar. If it was your birthday that month, you got to pick the dessert.

Up until the year of the experiment, we — myself, my husband, and our two daughters Greta and Ilsa — were a fairly normal family when it came to food, I think. Perhaps a bit on the liberal-organic-dirt-worshipping-side, but nevertheless, still fairly middle of the road. We ate meat. We liked snacks. We liked desserts. Life is short, I reasoned, and although I have my requisite worried-Vermont-mom concerns, (hormone free beef? GMO corn? pesticides in the potatoes?) I tried to keep them in check. I didn’t want my kids growing up being afraid to live.

So, short of going to live under a rock, what can we do? How do we learn to be “moderate” in a culture that is, every minute of every day trying to convince us that moderation is whatever you want it to be?

Although we are no longer Sugar Abstainers, these days the four of us are what I’d call Sugar Avoiders of the First Degree. Here are a few of the things our family took away from our Year of No Sugar:

Number one: don’t drink sugar. If we change nothing else in our culture, we should do this one thing. Not only will we be far healthier, but we’ll begin to realize what we are up against in the Sugar Wars: the ubiquity of sugar, the elevated degree of sweetness we’ve been trained to expect. Tellingly, this cuts out most of our society’s popular options: soda, juice, sugared teas, sports drinks, vitamin waters. What’s left? Water. Lots of water. More water. Milk. Unsweetened tea and coffee. And, due to its vanishingly small percentage of fructose, I hereby give you permission to include wine. You’re welcome.

Number two: read ingredients, always. We have come to a point where it has become all too clear we cannot trust the food industry to have our best interests at heart. The more packages, boxes and bags you read, the more amazed you will be at the number of things you buy, things that are not even sweet, that contain added sugar in all its myriad guises and aliases. Think you know your favorite tomato sauce? Chicken broth? Salad dressing? Cold cuts? I’d be willing to bet if you look closely, you’re going to be surprised. The good news is there’s almost always another brand, further down the shelf, that doesn’t contain that sneaky ingredient, if you take the time to find it.

Number three: order simply in restaurants and don’t be afraid to ask. Once you start to ask, you’ll be amazed at how much restaurant food has added sugar in it. And that’s assuming the staff even knows what’s in their own food, which is not always the case. The usual suspects? Dressings, glazes, broths, marinades and always, always the sauce.

Number four: make sugar special. Skip the crappy cookies someone brought to the office. Try having oatmeal with bananas and raisins on top instead of brown sugar. Save your sweet tooth for that oh-so-special something that’s really worth, you know, consuming a little bit of poison for.

Eve O. Schaub is the author of Year of No Sugar.

TIME

6 Secrets for a Faster Metabolism

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If Metabolism 101 were a class, you’d be the teacher’s pet: You never skip breakfast—you know a little food in the a.m. kick-starts the day’s calorie burn. And you don’t crash diet, either, because that leads your body to hang on to Every. Last. Calorie. Ready for the advanced course? We found out what real people with high metabolism do right. Adopt their ways to shrink your waist and get in peak shape.

Health.com: 20 Snacks That Burn Fat

Eat the correct number of calories

Science time! Metabolism is the chemical process in the body that converts the food you eat into fuel. The result: You get the energy that keeps you going each day. Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the number of calories per day your body naturally burns at rest, says Louis Aronne, MD, an obesity specialist at the New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. Knowing your number is key because it means you’ll be aware of exactly how many calories to consume to maintain your weight (or lose or gain, if need be).

Health.com: 25 Ways to Cut 500 Calories a Day

Calculate your calorie burn

Of course, you don’t just sit around all day—even a couch potato has to lift the remote once in a while. So in order to get a more accurate figure, factor in how active you are by using this calculator. Your result is the number of calories per day you need to maintain your current weight. Want to lose? Shave 500 extra calories a day by eating less, working out more or, ideally, doing a combo. You’ll drop 1 to 2 pounds per week.

Make workouts a regular thing

“Doing cardio exercise three to five times a week is associated with a higher metabolic rate at rest,” says Wayne Westcott, PhD, professor of exercise science at Quincy College, in Quincy, Mass. That means that even when out of the gym, your body is burning above and beyond what it would have had you never hauled butt over there. And there’s new research to show how you can boost your rate while you’re exercising, too. You’ve probably heard of Tabata, a workout in which, for four minutes, you alternate 20 seconds of all-out effort with 10 seconds of rest. When Michele Olson, PhD, professor of exercise physiology at Auburn University, in Auburn, Ala., had subjects try it with squat jumps, they burned 13.5 calories per minute; most moderate-intensity cardio burns just 6 or 7 calories per minute. “You can do it with almost any exercise,” she says, like sprints, jumping jacks or—better yet—burpees.

Health.com: 20 Ways to Torch 200 Calories

Don’t blow off lifting

A pound of muscle burns more calories than a pound of fat. Up to nine times the amount, in fact. “Lifting weights is the top way to stave off age-related metabolic drop,” says Pamela Peeke, MD, assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Never yo-yo diet

Yet another reason not to let your weight seesaw: You’ll hamstring your metabolism. “My patients with the lowest metabolisms are the weight cyclers,” says Scott Isaacs, MD, clinical instructor of medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine. “When you lose weight, you lose muscle and fat, but when you gain it back, it’s mostly fat, which burns fewer calories.”

Health.com: The 10 Most Filling Foods for Weight Loss

Have a bedtime snack (gasp!)

Forget what you think you know about not eating after 8 p.m. Two recent Florida State University studies found that having 150 calories about 30 minutes before you go to sleep—that’s an extra 150 calories added to your day, not taken out of your daily allotment—boosted metabolism in the morning, compared with having none. For best results, your p.m. snack should be protein (we like low-fat milk or cottage cheese). The one caveat is that this applies only if you’re exercising regularly. But you are, aren’t you?

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME psychology

The Single Most Proven Way to Get Smarter and Happier

Little boy makes a face while adjusting glasses
Mikkel William Nielsen—Getty Images

Yes, It’s This Simple

Many of the fixes for our problems aren’t complex — something that’s clear in the things I recommend people do every day.

What’s a scientifically validated way to get smarter, happier, healthier and calmer?

Stop reading this right now and go for a walk.

It’s that simple.

Here’s why.

Exercise Powers the Body — and the Mind

They used to say you don’t grow new brain cells. They were wrong.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

As an illustration of just how new this territory is, I’ll go back to the story of neurogenesis, the once-heretical theory that the brain grows new nerve cells throughout life. “Ten years ago people weren’t even convinced that it happened,” says neurologist Scott Small. It was at his Columbia University lab, in 2007, where they witnessed telltale signs of neurogenesis for the first time in live humans. “Five years ago people said, OK, it might happen, but is it really meaningful? Now there isn’t a week that goes by where there’s not another study that shows neurogenesis has some kind of effect on the brain.”

What really feeds those baby brain cells? Hitting the gym.

A three-month exercise regimen increased blood flow to the part of your brain focused on memory and learning by 30%.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

In his study, Small put a group of volunteers on a three-month exercise regimen and then took pictures of their brains. By manipulating a standard MRI machine’s processing — essentially zooming in and cocking the shutter open — he captured images of the newly formed capillaries required for nascent neurons to survive. What he saw was that the capillary volume in the memory area of the hippocampus increased by 30 percent, a truly remarkable change.

The Dumb Jock Is a Myth

Being in good shape increases your ability to learn. After exercise, people pick up new vocabulary words 20% faster.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

“One of the prominent features of exercise, which is sometimes not appreciated in studies, is an improvement in the rate of learning, and I think that’s a really cool take-home message,” Cotman says. “Because it suggests that if you’re in good shape, you may be able to learn and function more efficiently.”

Indeed, in a 2007 study of humans, German researchers found that people learn vocabulary words 20% faster following exercise than they did before exercise, and that the rate of learning correlated directly with levels of BDNF.

Want to be more creative? Sweating for about a half hour on the treadmill notably increases cognitive flexibility.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

A notable experiment in 2007 showed that cognitive flexibility improves after just one thirty-five-minute treadmill session at either 60 percent or 70 percent of maximum heart rate … Cognitive flexibility is an important executive function that reflects our ability to shift thinking and to produce a steady flow of creative thoughts and answers as opposed to a regurgitation of the usual responses.

Fine, you can see differences on an MRI and with nerdy tests. Does it make a difference in the real world?

Yes.

Office workers who exercised at lunch were more productive, less stressed and had more energy.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

In 2004 researchers at Leeds Metropolitan University in England found that workers who used their company’s gym were more productive and felt better able to handle their workloads. Most of the 210 participants in the study took an aerobics class at lunchtime, for forty-five minutes to an hour, but others lifted weights or practiced yoga for thirty minutes to an hour. They filled out questionnaires at the end of every workday about how well they interacted with colleagues, managed their time, and met deadlines. Some 65 percent fared better in all three categories on days they exercised. Overall, they felt better about their work and less stressed when they exercised. And they felt less fatigued in the afternoon, despite expending energy at lunchtime.

That super-productive co-worker who runs every day might not exercise because he has energy — he might have energy because he exercises.

While it might not make you the smartest person in the world, among the many ways to increase intelligence, exercise stands out.

Sweating Increases Smiling

Can’t make it simpler than this: Research from Duke University shows exercise is as effective as antidepressants in treating depression.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

In a landmark study affectionately called SMILE (Standard Medical Intervention and Long-term Exercise), James Blumenthal and his colleagues pitted exercise against the SSRI sertraline (Zoloft) in a sixteen-week trial … Blumenthal concluded that exercise was as effective as medication.

It also reduces anxiety.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

One interesting study in 2005 measured the physical and mental effects of exercise in a group of Chilean high school students for nine months … The experimental group’s anxiety scores dropped 14 percent versus a statistically insignificant 3 percent for the control group (an improvement that could be explained by the placebo effect).

What if you’re not depressed or anxious? Stay sedentary and you’re 1.5 times more likely to eventually become depressed.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

Researchers tracked 8,023 people for twenty-six years, surveying them about a number of factors related to lifestyle habits and healthiness starting in 1965. They checked back in with the participants in 1974 and in 1983. Of all the people with no signs of depression at the beginning, those who became inactive over the next nine years were 1.5 times more likely to have depression by 1983 than their active counterparts.

Still not convinced? People who exercise are, across the board, mentally healthier: less depression, anger, stress and distrust.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

A massive Dutch study of 19,288 twins and their families published in 2006 showed that exercisers are less anxious, less depressed, less neurotic, and also more socially outgoing. A Finnish study of 3,403 people in 1999 showed that those who exercise at least two to three times a week experience significantly less depression, anger, stress, and “cynical distrust” than those who exercise less or not at all.

O.K., O.K. — How Much Do I Need to Do?

What’s optimal? Exercise six days a week, 45 minutes to an hour per day.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

The best, however, based on everything I’ve read and seen, would be to do some form of aerobic activity six days a week, for forty-five minutes to an hour … In total, I’m talking about committing six hours a week to your brain. That works out to 5 percent of your waking hours.

Stop rolling your eyes. It’s not all or nothing.

Regarding body health and brain health, experts and neuroscientists agree: “A little is good, and more is better.”

Here’s something proved to make you smarter, healthier and happier. What could be a better investment of your time?

You might ask: If it’s obviously so great, why don’t we all do it?

Because habits and social influences are much more powerful than we think.

And, in general, we don’t do what makes us happy — we do what’s easy.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

What’s the best first step? Go here.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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