Obesity, hypertension and diabetes. These are some of the most prevalent health conditions that plague the American population, yet they can be managed through a variety of lifestyle changes, diet and, in some instances, prescription medications. As traditional Western medicine continues to evolve into holistic approaches, more physicians are becoming increasingly knowledgeable in nutrition and are shifting their mindset from how to treat the health condition to how to prevent the health condition in the first place.
As the CTO of a company that creates daily supplement regimens using artificial intelligence, I’ve seen firsthand how AI is making it even easier for healthcare practitioners to serve up nutrition to their patients right in their offices and at the patients’ homes.
Nutrition discussions led by AI
Three-quarters of Americans take dietary supplements, according to the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN). As more and more Americans are taking nutrition into their own hands by using vitamins and supplements, it is crucial to understand that a significant number of people — almost 40% — don’t feel they need to speak with their doctor before adding a supplement to their daily routine. Thanks to AI, more doctors can now have intentional conversations with their patients about their nutrition and their use of daily vitamin supplements. Likewise, AI puts big data at doctors’ fingertips so they can easily access, cross-reference and provide intelligent recommendations on how to balance the ingredients found in the prescription medication with the ingredients that make up daily vitamins and supplements.
Beyond nutrition discussions, AI is making a profound impact in the healthcare space as a whole. For example, Philips has combined AI and other technologies with knowledge of the clinical and operational context in which they are used for a people-centered approach that the company calls “adaptive intelligence.” As it relates to imaging technology such as an MRI or X-ray, specifically, Philips provides AI-powered and easy-to-use tools that are embedded right into a doctor or technician’s workflow. The result is improved patient care and less time spent waiting for a patient’s history or lab results.
Another promising AI application comes from Sense.ly, a virtual nurse assistant that’s available through an app. While it may seem trivial or unnecessary, its goal is to keep the line of communication open between patients and healthcare providers between office visits. According to Sense.ly’s CEO, this product is “always improving, learning more and more from patients, and as we partner with more organizations, bring in more disease states and research, we’ll layer in more protocols and content.”
Creating educated and convenient nutrition programs
A nutrition program that includes in-depth discussions and analysis with a healthcare practitioner will put a patient on the right path for ongoing wellness. By adding convenient access to high-quality vitamins and supplements through a subscription model where the personalized vitamins are delivered directly to a patient’s door, patients will be motivated to care for their bodies each and every day.
We’ve seen the success of medication delivery to a patient’s home through Amazon’s acquisition of PillPack, an online pharmacy, for more than $700 million in 2018. This is the future of healthcare — one that is led first through the integration of AI into a physician’s practice.
Ways doctors can utilize technology to expand a patient’s nutrition program
• Let AI make the recommendation. Utilize big data and the growing number of personalized nutrition programs that leverage AI to identify one of the trillions of combinations of vitamins and nutrients best suited for the patient, or input specific recommendations directly into the technology platform
• Use powerful databases driven by AI to identify potential drug-nutrient interactions.
• Share results through seamless integration between patient- and practitioner-facing information to promote full, comprehensive healthcare
AI is mutually beneficial for the patient and practitioner and is changing the way doctors are able to provide holistic care.
Every year a new batch of diets become trendy. In the past, the blood group, ketogenic, Pioppi and gluten-free diets were among the most popular. These have made way for the mono diet, charcoal detox, Noom, time-restricted feeding and Fast800.
So what are these new diets and is there any scientific evidence to support them?
The monotrophic or mono diet limits food intake to just one food group such as meat or fruit, or one individual food like potato or chicken, each day.
The mono diet has no scientific basis and no research has been done on it. It’s definitely a fad and should not be followed.
It leads to weight loss because your food intake is so limited (one food per day) that you get sick of that food very quickly and so automatically achieve a reduced kilojoule intake.
If you ate three apples at each main meal and had another three as between-meal snacks then your total kilojoule intake from the 12 apples would be about 4,000 kilojoules (950 calories).
The mono diet is nutritionally inadequate. The nutrients most deficient will depend on the individual foods consumed, but if you follow the mono diet long term, you would eventually develop vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
2. Charcoal detox
The charcoal detox diet claims to help people lose weight by “detoxing” them. It involves periods of fasting and consumption of tea or juice drinks that contain charcoal.
It is definitely not recommended.
Medical professionals use activated charcoal to treat patients who have been poisoned or have overdosed on specific medications. Charcoal can bind to some compounds and remove them from the body.
There is no scientific evidence to support the use of charcoal as a weight loss strategy.
Charcoal detox plans also include dietary restrictions or fasts, so people might lose weight because they’re consuming fewer kilojoules.
Charcoal is not selective. It can bind to some medications and nutrients, as well as toxic substances, so there is the potential for charcoal to trigger nutrient deficiencies and/or make some medications less effective.
The Noom diet isn’t actually a diet at all. It is a smartphone app called Noom Coach that focuses on behaviour change techniques to assist with weight loss. It allows users to monitor their eating and physical activity, and provides support and feedback.
The Noom diet does not provide a diet plan, but it gets users to record within the app, all foods and drinks consumed. It then uses a traffic light system (red, yellow, green) to indicate how healthy the foods are.
One advantage of Noom is that is doesn’t eliminate any foods or food groups, and it encourages healthy lifestyle behaviour change to assist with weight loss.
A disadvantage is that while you can download the app for a free short-term trial, membership is about A$50 per month for four months. And additional services cost extra. So consider whether this approach suits your budget.
Time-restricted feeding is a type of intermittent fast that involves restricting the time of day that you are “allowed” to eat. This typically means eating in a window lasting four to ten hours.
While energy-restriction during this period is not a specific recommendation, it happens as a consequence of eating only during a shorter period of time than usual.
The difference between time-restricted feeding compared to other intermittent fasting strategies is that recent research suggests some metabolic benefits are initiated following a fasting period that lasts for 16 hours, as opposed to a typical overnight fast of ten to 12 hours.
Further research is required to determine whether any health effects of time-restricted feeding are due to regular 16-hour fasting periods, or simply because eating over a small time window reduces energy intake.
If this approach helps you get started on a healthy lifestyle and your GP gives you the all clear, then try it. You will need to follow up with some permanent changes to your lifestyle so your food and physical activity patterns are improved in the long term.
The Fast800 diet by Dr Michael Mosley encourages a daily intake of just 800 calories (about 3,350 kilojoules) during the initial intensive phase of the Blood Sugar Diet.
This lasts for up to eight weeks and is supposed to help you rapidly lose weight and improve your blood sugar levels. You can buy the book for about A$20 or pay A$175 for a 12-week online program that says it includes a personal assessment, recipes, physical and mindfulness exercises, tools, access to experts, an online community, information for your doctor and advice for long-term healthy living.
Two recent studies provide some evidence that supports these claims: the DiRECT and DROPLET trials.
In these studies, GPs prescribed patients who were obese and/or had type 2 diabetes an initial diet of 800 calories, using formulated meal replacements. This initial phase was followed by a gradual reintroduction of food. Participants also received structured support to help them maintain the weight loss.
Both studies compared the intervention to a control group who received either usual care or treatment using best practice guidelines.
They found participants in the 800 calorie groups lost more weight and more of the adults with type 2 diabetes achieved remission than the control groups.
This is what you would expect, given the intervention was very intensive and included a very low total daily energy intake.
But the low energy intake can make the Fast800 difficult to stick to. It can also be challenging to get enough nutrients, so protocols need to be carefully followed and any recommended nutrient supplements taken.
Fast800 is not suitable for people with a history of eating disorders or health conditions such as liver disease. So if you’re considering it, talk to your GP.
When it comes to weight loss, there are no magic tricks that guarantee success. Have a health check up with your GP, focus on making healthy lifestyle changes and if you need more support, ask to be referred to an accredited practising dietitian.
Clare Collins is affiliated with the Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition, the University of Newcastle, NSW. She is an NHMRC Senior Research and Gladys M Brawn Research Fellow. She has received research grants from NHMRC, ARC, Hunter Medical Research Institute, Meat and Livestock Australia, Diabetes Australia, Heart Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, nib foundation, Rijk Zwaan Australia and Greater Charitable Foundation. She has consulted to SHINE Australia, Novo Nordisk, Quality Bakers, the Sax Institute and the ABC. She was a team member conducting systematic reviews to inform the Australian Dietary Guidelines update and the Heart Foundation evidence reviews on meat and dietary patterns.
Lee Ashton is affiliated with the Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia.
Rebecca Williams is affiliated with the Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia.
I’m a creature of habit. I like to drink the same 400-calorie smoothie every morning after my morning workout, wear the same three black pairs of leggings, listen to the same pump-up jams that I’ve listened to since high school (what’s up, early-2000s pop/punk). And as a creature of habit, I tend to make the same handful of recipes over and over.
Sure, that’s mostly because I’m a terrible cook and not that adventurous in the kitchen, but eating the same things over and over again can help you achieve your weight-loss goals. I have lost about 15 pounds since January, and I find that eating the same lunches repeatedly has kept me on track and takes the guesswork out of tracking my meals.
Since I usually order a takeout salad for lunch anyway, I thought it would be easier if I just made my own salad and brought it in. My 450-calorie salad is actually delicious and provides all three macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat) to keep me feeling full and satisfied all afternoon. To make things even easier, I just bring all my ingredients to work and chop the veggies when I get there. I don’t have time to slice up a bell pepper or a cucumber in the morning before work, but I do have time to throw all my ingredients in a plastic salad bowl with a lid and run out the door — I like the 2.5-quart bowl from this Sterilite 8 Piece Covered Bowl Set ($12). Check out my recipe below.
450-Calorie Weight-Loss Salad Recipe
Mixed greens (usually bagged Spring mix)
3 ounces of rotisserie chicken (no skin)
1/4 of a cucumber
1/4 of a red bell pepper
1/4 of an avocado
2 tablespoons Greek dressing
In my opinion, the dressing makes all the difference. That’s why I love Primal Kitchen Greek Vinaigrette dressing ($21 for two bottles). It’s made with avocado oil, so it’s full of satiating, healthy fats. I also get more healthy fat from one-fourth of an avocado. For protein, I opt for a slice of rotisserie chicken; I buy a rotisserie chicken from the store on Sunday night and have it the whole week. I also love a variety of colorful veggies to add some healthy carbs.
Although it’s probably easier to keep a bottle of salad dressing in the work fridge, I don’t trust my coworkers (kidding! sort of . . .) so I use the GladWare Mini Round containers ($7 for an eight-count). I can measure out two tablespoons and store it easily. I love these little reusable containers for not only salad dressings, but also stashing nuts, nut butters, and berries.
I’ve been tracking my calories using the Noom weight-loss app and love how the Noom food database is huge and includes all of my favorite foods, snacks, and salad dressings. It makes tracking so much easier. Using the Noom app, I calculated that my salad is 445 calories.
Want a quick and easy way to make good-for-you recipes? Well, here’s how you can easily combine the healthful eating guidelines of the Mediterranean diet with the time-saving convenience of a multi-cooker. To get you started, I’ll share a quick overview of the Mediterranean diet plus easy recipes you can make in your Instant Pot or pressure cooker.
Quick Q&A on the Mediterranean Diet
What is the Mediterranean diet? This popular healthy eating plan emphasizes whole foods, fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, healthy fats such as olive oil and avocado, and proteins such as chicken, seafood, nuts, beans, and legumes. In addition, you’ll cut back on added sugars and processed foods, and eat dairy in moderation. You’ll also cut back on added salt by using fresh and dried herbs to flavor your food instead.
What are the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet? According to the Mayo Clinic, following this eating style can result in a longer life expectancy and lower rates of chronic diseases. In fact, it’s been consistently ranked among the best diets overall.
“I’ve made this recipe twice in the last month and we just love it! The Instant Pot makes it so easy. The only change I made the second time around was to cut the beans back by half a cup (this seemed to make the bean consistency less tough), increased the broth by a quarter cup and used a mixture of chicken breast and thighs. The flavor of this is amazing and it’s just so hearty and perfect for chilly weather days!” — Heidi Nelson Thomas
To keep this easy recipe more in line with the Mediterranean diet, you can reduce the salt by cutting back on the bouillon cubes and bumping up the herbs. “Flavors meld together like they’ve been simmering all day in a fraction of the time. A couple of small changes: I season the chicken prior to sauteeing. Instead of chicken bouillon cubes, I started using Better Than Bouillon Chicken Base as it contains much less salt and seems to have more flavor.” — kirby1kat
Mediterranean diet guidelines suggest you eat fish twice a week. With this easy recipe, you’ll be able to stock up and freeze salmon when it’s on sale, and cook it easily from frozen. “Salmon doesn’t get much easier than this! This turned out so moist and I like how it can be seasoned to individual preference.” — thedailygourmet
“You can have posole without having to stand over the stove for hours. Let your multi-functional pressure cooker do the work for you. Garnish with avocado slices, lime wedges, sliced radish, jalapeno slices, and/or tortilla strips.” — Soup Loving Nicole (May we suggest baked tortilla chips instead of fried?)
“My first thought was maybe I should cut back on the spices cuz it seemed so much, but I am certainly glad I did not! Followed recipe & since I eat dairy free diet, used vegan butter & left out yogurt & this recipe is amazing! I’d give it 10 stars if I could … just that awesome!!” — CCCooks
“This delicious arroz-con-pollo-esque dish is so easy to make with the Instant Pot,” says Diana71. “Colorful, appetizing, and nourishing, this meal comes together in a flash and is chock full of flavor! I hope it becomes your next favorite weeknight meal. Squeeze lime or lemon wedges over if you like!”
More and more studies are showing how regular exercise benefits the brain, and in particular, the aging brain. What’s less clear is how exactly exercise counters the cognitive decline that comes with aging and diseases like Alzheimer’s.
To find out, for nearly a decade, Ozioma Okonkwo, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and his colleagues have studied a unique group of middle-aged people at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Through a series of studies, the team has been building knowledge about which biological processes seem to change with exercise.
Okonkwo’s latest findings show that improvements in aerobic fitness mitigated one of the physiological brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s: the slowing down of how neurons breakdown glucose. The research, which has not been published yet, was presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association on Aug. 9.
Okonkwo works with the 1,500 people on the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention (WRAP)—all of whom are cognitively normal, but have genes that put them at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s, or have one or two parents who have been diagnosed with the disease, or both. In the latest study, Okonkwo recruited 23 people from the WRAP population who were not physically active. Eleven were asked to participate in an exercise regimen to improve their aerobic fitness for six months, and 12 served as the control.
All had their brains scanned to track Alzheimer’s-related brain changes including differences in how neurons metabolized glucose, since in people with Alzheimer’s glucose breakdown slows. At the end of the study period, the group that exercised more showed higher levels of glucose metabolism and performed better on cognitive-function tests compared to the controls.
“We are carrying our research full circle and beginning to demonstrate some causality,” says Okonkwo about the significance of his findings.
In their previous work, he and his team identified a series of Alzheimer’s-related biological changes that seemed to be affected by exercise by comparing, retrospectively, people who were more physically active to those who were not.
In this study, they showed that intervening with an exercise regimen could actually affect these processes. Taken together, his body of research is establishing exactly how physical activity contributes to significant changes in the biological processes that drive Alzheimer’s, and may even reduce the effect of strong risk factors such as age and genes linked to higher risk of neurodegenerative disease.
For example, in their earlier work his group confirmed that as people age, the presence of Alzheimer’s-related brain changes increases—including the buildup of amyloid, slower breakdown of glucose by brain cells, shrinking of the volume of the hippocampus (central to memory), and declines in cognitive function measured in standard recall and recognition tests.
But they found that in people who reported exercising at moderate intensity at least 150 minutes a week, as public health experts recommend, brain scans showed that these changes were significantly reduced and in some cases non-existent compared to people who were not active. “The association between age and Alzheimer’s brain changes was blunted,” says Okonkwo, “Even if [Alzheimer’s] got worse, it didn’t get worse at the same speed or rate among those who are physically active as in those who are inactive.”
In another previous study, they found the benefits of exercise in controlling Alzheimer’s processes even among those with genetic predisposition for the disease. When they divided the participants by fitness levels, based on a treadmill test and their ability to efficiently take in oxygen, they found that being fit nearly negated the effect of the deleterious gene ApoE4. “It’s a remarkable finding because it’s not something that was predicted,” says Okonkwo.
In yet another previous study, Okonkwo and his team also found that people with higher aerobic fitness showed lower amounts of white matter hyperintensities, brain changes that are signs of neuron degeneration and show up as brighter spots on MRI images (hence the name). White matter hyperintensities tend to increase in the brain with age, and are more common in people with dementia or cognitive impairment.
They form as neurons degrade and the myelin that surrounds their long-reaching arms—which helps nerves communicate with each other effectively—starts to deteriorate. In people with dementia, that process happens faster than normal, leading to an increase in white matter hyperintensities. Okonwko found that people who were more aerobically fit showed lower amounts of these hyperintensities than people who were less fit.
Given the encouraging results from his latest study of 23 people that showed intervening with exercise can change some of the Alzheimer’s-related brain changes of the disease, he plans to expand his small study to confirm the positive effect that exercise and better fitness can have in slowing the signs of Alzheimer’s. Already, his work has inspired a study launched earlier this year and funded by the National Institutes of Health that includes brain scans to track how physical activity affects biological factors like amyloid and glucose in people at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
The cumulative results show that “there may be certain things we are born with, and certain things that we can’t change ]when it comes to Alzheimer’s risk], but a behavior like physical exercise might help us to modify that,” says Heather Snyder, vice president of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association.
Breast cancer treatments have come a long way in recent decades, but understanding how to prevent tumors from forming in the first place has been a major challenge.
In a new study being presented at the annual American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Chicago next month, researchers report intriguing evidence that a low-fat diet, similar to the kind doctors recommend for heart health, is also linked to a lower risk of dying from breast cancer.
The study analyzed data from the Women’s Health Initiative, a large trial sponsored by the National Institutes of Health that studies the health effects of hormone therapy, diet and certain supplements on the health of more than 160,000 postmenopausal women. In this trial, researchers led by Dr. Rowan Chlebowski, an investigator at LA Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, focused on a group of nearly 49,000 women who were randomly assigned to follow either a low-fat diet or a control diet for 8.5 years. The low-fat diet group aimed to reduce their fat intake to 20% of their total daily calories and to increase the consumption of fruit, vegetables and grains. None of the women had breast cancer at the start of the study.
After the study ended, the rates of new breast cancers were about the same in the two groups, but women who were diagnosed with breast cancer in the interim had a 35% lower risk of dying from any cause compared to those on the control diet. Even 20 years after the study ended, the women who ate the low-fat diet continued to have a 15% lower mortality risk. And in the longer follow-up data, their risk of dying specifically from breast cancer was 21% lower than that of the women who didn’t change their diet.
“This is a very exciting result for us,” says Chlebowski. “Now we have randomized clinical trial evidence that dietary moderation, which is achievable by many, can have health benefits including reducing risk of death from breast cancer. That’s pretty good; it’s hard not to be happy about that.”
The study is the first to rigorously test a potential factor that could influence deaths from breast cancer. Earlier observational studies did not assign volunteers to specific diets but looked at cancer outcomes depending on what people, on their own, chose to eat. In this study, volunteers were provided with dietary guidelines to follow about what to eat. “Until this study, we lacked any data from a prospective randomized control trial, which is the gold standard, for showing that a dietary approach really does reduce the risk of dying from breast cancer,” says Dr. Neil Iyengar, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, who was not involved in the study. “Many of us who are proponents of considering diet and exercise in the cancer treatment plan are excited by this trial data because it is the first to show in a very robust way that we can improve outcomes and prevent cancer-related deaths just by changing the diet.”
In a separate sub-study, the research team also showed that the longer women were on the modified diet, the lower their risk of death during the study period. The results should give doctors more confidence in considering diet when discussing treatment options with women who are diagnosed with breast cancer. While the study did not find a significant connection between dietary changes and the incidence of new breast cancer, the results do suggest that modifying the diet can lower a woman’s risk of dying from any cause, or from breast cancer, if she is diagnosed with the disease.
The reason for that, says Iyengar, may have to do with the diet’s “dose.” It’s possible, for example, that the effect of the dietary change is greater on tiny tumors in the breast tissue that are already established, although they aren’t robust enough yet to lead to a diagnosis of breast cancer. “The effect of this diet may be stronger in preventing the growth of already established tumors rather than preventing the development of tumors,” he says. “What this trial does is position us to take a deeper dive, now that we know we can effectively change the tumor or cancer behavior with diet.”
Chlebowski plans to dig deeper into the data to find out more about how diet is working to lower deaths from breast cancer. During the trial, women provided blood samples both at the start of the study and one year later, so he and his team may find factors that changed among the women on the diet compared to those on the control plan.
In the meantime, he hopes cancer doctors will talk about diet with their patients who might be at higher risk of developing breast cancer. Though not all women in the study were able to lower their fat intake to 20% of their daily calories,“these dietary changes are achievable by many,” he says. Even though not all of the women on the low-fat diet met the target, the study showed that the modifications still reduced risk of dying from any cause and from breast cancer. “It’s about taking smaller pieces of meat, and adding vegetables to the plate to balance things out,” he says.
There are some things you know are going to make your anxiety worse: WebMDing your stomach ache, foregoing sleep to list all the ways your work presentation could go wrong, calling your friend who freaks out about everything…But treating yourself to a scoop of Rocky Road or a cupcake from your favorite bakery, that’s going to make you feel better right?
Sometimes, 100 percent yes. But other times, that sweet treat can backfire, sneakily causing all sorts of changes that can lead to the opposite of feeling good: anxiety. Here, health experts break down the relationship between sugar and anxiety, and what you can do to combat it.
How are sugar and anxiety related?
The problem with sugar, says hormone health educator Candace Burch, is that it causes blood sugar spikes and drops, which directly affects mood. “The rush of sugar leads to sugar highs, giving a lot of energy, but then the lows lead to feeling sluggish and down.”
“Sugar can exacerbate your feelings of anxiety because of the way our bodies respond to digesting them,” adds Brigitte Zeitlin, RD, owner of BZ Nutrition, a New York-based nutrition practice. “[Sugary foods] cause your blood sugar to spike and then drop faster than they would after eating non-high-sugar-foods. This quick spike and drop causes you to feel uneasy and can even at times mimic a panic attack.” Having low blood sugar levels can actually put the body into a stress response, which, as Zeitlin mentions, can increase anxiety.
Our bodies obviously don’t like being stressed or anxious, says Zeitlin. People combat that in various ways, including reaching for sugary foods. “Foods high in sugar trigger the release of serotonin, which is a feel good hormone,” Zeitlin says. “We are trained to eat sugar and feel good, which makes it understandable why people stress eat, because they just want to feel better when they are feeling stressed and anxious.”
However, when your body is stressed or anxious, you also have higher levels of cortisol (a.k.a. the “stress hormone”). Zeitlin says when this happens, your body suppresses the release of insulin, the hormone that takes up glucose to use for energy. You now have a one-two punch of spiked blood sugar levels (since you’re eating more sugar to combat your stress) and storing excess sugar as fat since you’re not turning it into energy. “So, eating more sugar when you are stressed or anxious just amplifies the amount of sugar your body would naturally have already flowing, and contributes to more severe drops in blood sugar and more drastic drops in your mood,” she says. Enter a cycle of turning to something sweet every time they need another energy and mood boost, and a subsequent rollercoaster of ups and downs which can also contribute to feelings of anxiety.
This sugar-and-anxiety cycle isn’t just relegated to the daytime hours. “High-sugar foods can keep you up because of their energy that prevents your natural stress-booster of sleep from kicking in,” Zeitlin says. “When we don’t get enough sleep we feel even more anxious and stressed because our body missed an opportunity to process it properly.” You’re now going into the next day with less sleep, and thus lower energy levels and higher stress levels. And what do many people reach for to combat stress and anxiety? You guessed it: sugar.
And “high-sugar foods” doesn’t just mean candy, cookies, and cake. “Studies have found that women who eat more refined carbohydrates (baked goods, candy, white breads/rice/cereals, bagels, etc) were more likely to suffer from depression and mood swings because of the drastic peaks and deeps in blood sugar levels,” Zeitlin says.
How to keep sugar from contributing to anxiety
Of course, this isn’t just to freak you out and make you throw out all of the dairy-free ice cream in the fridge. Lots of other things can contribute to anxiety, including stress, coffee, work, and even family relationships—so cutting out Oreos isn’t the magic bullet for reducing anxiety. But the impact of sugar on anxiety levels can affect anyone, says Zeitlin—and if you have an existing anxiety disorder, sugary foods will likely exacerbate your condition, she adds.
One way to combat this is certainly to reduce your sugar intake, including processed foods and breads. It’s also a good idea to load up on foods low in sugar and high in fiber (think veggies, fruit like berries, and whole grains)—Zeitlin says they have a much more even effect on your blood sugar, which can help cut back on feelings of “increased anxiety.” She also recommends stopping eating about two hours before you go to sleep. “This gives your body time to properly digest and process the food—sugary or not—and let that energy subside in time for you to actually fall asleep and stay asleep.”
When you are eating foods higher in sugar, Burch suggests pairing it with foods higher in fiber and healthy fats. “This slows the absorption of sugar, preventing it from spiking blood sugar as much,” she says, and thus making it less likely to put you in an anxiety spiral.
But all this comes with a big caveat: Changing one’s diet shouldn’t be the only thing a person does to fight back against anxiety. “Changing your diet to limit high-sugar foods will not treat or cure your anxiety disorder, but it will help manage it better and optimize the times you are feeling good and less anxious,” says Zeitlin. Psychologist Gail Saltz, PhD, says some ways to reduce anxiety not related to food include deep breathing, working out, and (to bring it all full circle) getting enough sleep. If none of these lifestyle changes are helping, it’s essential to see a professional to help you come up with a treatment plan.
“Sugary foods contribute to mood swings and anxiety. Period,” Zeitlin says. And now that you understand the connection, it’ll be easier to be more mindful when you are consuming foods with sugar in them.
Remember when McDonald’s launched the McLean Deluxe in the early ’90s to ride the wave of the low-fat diet era? The burger featured a 91% fat-free beef patty (the secret ingredient was a seaweed extract) and lasted a few years on the menu before it was yanked due to poor sales.
This example brings up an important question: What role, if any, should restaurants play in the latest fad diet or in the chase for the fickle health-conscious consumer in general? After all, restaurant visits have long been considered an indulgence and, from A (Atkins) to Z (Zone), diets come and go quicker than most operators can change a static menu board.
But that hasn’t stopped restaurant concepts from trying. And lately it seems as though there has been a higher degree of success in doing so—at least more so than the McLean Deluxe.
Noodles & Company, for example, just expanded its zucchini-noodle based offerings with two new menu items as part of a new category, “Zoodles and Other Noodles.” In a release, the company said the expansion is in response to overwhelmingly positive guest feedback to its initial Zoodles launch last year. During the company’s Q4 earnings call, executive chairman Paul Murphy said the zucchini noodle is an important step toward the brand’s objective of resonating from a health perspective.
“In fact, during the first few days, it generated over a billion earned media impressions,” he said.
The company is now testing several other menu items highlighting “the ideas of lifestyle goals,” Niccol said. This comes on the heels of the chain’s vegan and vegetarian bowls launch in 2018, which made up 12% of Chipotle’s total meals sold last year.
Even the most famous doughnut concept is getting involved. During Dunkin’s Q1 earnings call, CEO Dave Hoffman specifically called out the success of the brand’s Power Breakfast Sandwich.
“It’s a terrific first step for us into the better-for-you category and proves customers are open to more menu options at Dunkin’,” he said. The company is building off that success with a new egg white power bowl.
Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes just jumped into the specialty diet space with its new line of Lifestyle Burgers, including The Paleo, The Keto, The Low Cal, The Vegetarian and The Gluten-Free. For the former three burgers, the bun is replaced by iceberg lettuce.
Natalie Anderson Liu, Mooyah’s vice president of Brand, said restaurant chains should be quick to respond to consumer dietary preferences and lifestyle trends, no matter how quickly they come or go.
“This is simply a matter of being a good listener to guests. Beyond want, we have found that consumers expect us to have menu items that help them achieve their goals,” she said.
So far, the Lifestyle Burgers launch has been “huge.” Thirty-one percent of guests who ordered one of these options were first-time visitors, Liu said.
“This is incredibly exciting and confirms the relevance of featuring our menu this way,” she said.
Liu believes more chains will toe this line of healthier (“lifestyle”) menu offerings.
Two years ago, Scott Davis was named president of CoreLife Eatery after serving as an executive at Panera for nearly two decades. He has a deep perspective of the industry and confirms there is a growing connection between consumers’ dietary demands and restaurants’ responses.
“Over the last couple of decades, as healthy eating has become more popular, restaurants have mostly played role of a ‘marketplace’–essentially providing healthy options or special menus,” he said. “The key is not getting stuck on one style of eating or dieting. Promoting general wellness, clean sourcing and ‘what works for you’ can help. ‘Healthy’ is different for everyone.”
Davis concurs with Liu that we’re now in an era of “expectation” versus “want” when it comes to restaurants providing healthier options.
“On the flip side, consumers do not want to be told what they should or should not be eating. They do not want to feel judged about eating,” he said.
That being said, it’s important for restaurant brands to stick to their core competencies.
“Chasing trends and expanding menus beyond logical extensions of the concept almost always fails. You must be able to gain credibility with your customer,” Davis said.
Great Harvest Bread Co. CEO Mike Ferretti agrees, noting that restaurant companies should be conscious of consumer diet trends, but only adapt to the ones that make business sense for the brand.
“You can’t do them all, and they impact different parts of the country at different times,” he said. “It is easier to steer customers to the things we believe in that fit our brand.”
If a brand swings and misses on a specialty diet offering, Ferretti said it can have an “extreme” impact on the business. Conversely, if it’s a hit, it can have the same effect for the positive.
“Think of all the low-carb businesses that popped up and were gone in a year,” he said. “Alternatively, things like Atkins and Keto hurt us at first, but eventually people come back to whole grains, so it swings.”
Because of this unpredictability, expanding menus to appeal to a broader group of consumers who are chasing a broader variety of diets can be both risky and rewarding.
“Fads are fads. People and businesses will do what they do,” Ferretti said. “What has staying power—the broad ones really driving the industry—is healthy, simple, clean.”
Davis adds that vegan and vegetarian diets have had such staying power since the 1970s and will continue on that path while contributing to a growing cohort of consumers who identify as flexitarians. About one third of consumers now consider themselves to be flexitarians, meaning they simply want another choice than traditional protein every now and then even if they’re not technically vegan or vegetarian.
“Lifestyle demands are not going away and restaurants will endear themselves and earn loyalty by keeping their menus relevant,” Liu said. “This has resulted in a competitive advantage for us and, more importantly, an increase in sales.”
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