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Eating Right for Gut Health

Everyone experiences digestive problems from time to time. Symptoms such as heartburn, indigestion, gas, bloating, constipation and abdominal discomfort are common and can be caused by a variety of things including diet, age, health conditions, and certain medications. But when digestive distress becomes a constant problem and interferes with your day-to-day life, it may be time to reexamine your diet and make some changes that can help alleviate unpleasant symptoms and lead to better digestive health.

Scientists have discovered in recent years that in addition to improved digestive health,  the GI system is linked to many other aspects of health from immunity to emotional health to chronic illnesses including cancer and Type 2 diabetes. This link is believed to lie in the microbiome—the bacteria and other microorganisms that inhabit the stomach and intestines.

It’s important to note that persistent digestive problems should always be checked by your doctor. If you’ve been cleared medically of any underlying health conditions, then changing your diet can help regulate digestion and improve your overall gut health.

The Big Three
Improving gut health revolves around three major sources: foods containing fiber, probiotics, prebiotics, or a combination of all three.

  • Fiber, found in plant-based foods, aids in digestion as it helps regulate the speed at which food moves through your gut.
  • Probiotics in foods are live microorganisms or so-called “good bacteria.” These foods are created through the fermentation process and can encourage a healthy digestive tract.
  • Prebiotics are necessary for probiotics to work in helping the flora in your gut to flourish.

While there are a lot of over-the-counter probiotic/prebiotic supplements available on the market, these types of supplements are not well-regulated, so you don’t know if you’re actually getting what is on the label. It is much more beneficial to get these nutrients through food rather than supplements. The best foods for all three sources are whole foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products.

Focus on Fiber.
Most Americans do not get enough fiber in their diets. The recommended daily amount of fiber for women is 25 grams and 38 grams for men. Increasing the fiber in your diet should be done gradually, especially if you aren’t already eating a lot of fibrous foods, because adding too much too quickly can cause cramping and gas. By increasing your fiber intake gradually, digestive symptoms should also gradually improve.

To increase your daily fiber intake, eat a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and try adding more of these particular foods to your diet:

  • Legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, navy beans, and white beans
  • Berries such as blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries
  • Whole grains such as barley, bran, and bulgur

Promote Probiotics and Prebiotics.

Research on probiotics and prebiotics is relatively new, so there is currently no specific recommendation for daily intake. Eating a variety of foods containing probiotics several times a week can help regulate digestion and ease mild digestive symptoms.

The best sources of probiotic foods include:

  • Yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Sauerkraut
  • Tempeh
  • Kimchi
  • Miso
  • Kombucha
  • Pickles
  • Cheeses – Gouda, mozzarella, cheddar, cottage cheese

Prebiotics are found in fiber-rich foods, like fruits and vegetables, although not all plant-based foods contain prebiotics. Some of the best sources include bananas, nuts, whole wheat, and corn.

By revamping your diet to include more of these foods that promote a healthy gut, you can lessen or eliminate symptoms of digestive distress and improve overall health.


Beyond Burgers: Best Foods to Grill This Summer

Cookouts are a summer tradition, and let’s face it, nothing tastes better than a burger or hot dog made on the grill. Grilling is not just fun and easy, it’s also a healthful way to cook. There’s no better time than summer to experiment with new foods cooked on the backyard grill.

Think beyond hamburgers and hot dogs and fire up the grill to try these easy recipes. Then experiment with other foods on your own to create new summer recipes.


Take your favorite summer veggies from the garden or the farmers’ market and season with salt and pepper, coat them with olive oil, and grill.  Think squash, eggplant, peppers, onions, mushrooms, and more.


Add some shrimp to the grilled vegetables and make shrimp skewers. Kids love food on a stick and will be more likely to eat their veggies!

Corn on the Cob

Corn is a great side dish for any summer meal. Grilling corn gives it a delicious, crisp texture.


Place salmon skin-side up directly on the grill and cook for 8 minutes then flip. Season with a marinade of your choice or serve plain.

Lamb chops
Lambchops about an inch thick cook in three to four minutes on direct heat, so be sure to watch them closely.

Sweet potatoes

Cut a sweet potato in half and place each half in the center of a rectangle of aluminum foil. Turn pouches every 10 minutes until the potatoes are tender and cooked all the way through, approximately 20-30 minutes.

Pineapple and peaches

Grill slices of pineapple or peaches (or grill an entire pineapple, sliced down the middle). Serve fruit plain, or add some brown sugar and vanilla ice cream for a refreshingly sweet dessert.


Food Service Focus: Celiac Awareness Month

May was Celiac Awareness Month, but managing this serious autoimmune disorder is a year-round job. If you’re in the foodservice industry, here’s what you need to know about Celiac Disease.

Celiac Basics

According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, celiac disease is a genetic disorder in which the body’s immune response to gluten (a protein found in wheat and many other grains) is to attack the lining of the small intestine (the villi).

The attacks damage the villi over time, which affects the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. If left untreated, celiac disease can lead to other autoimmune disorders like Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis as well as serious neurological conditions and even stomach cancer. Short-term symptoms for adults usually include diarrhea, fatigue, and weight loss as well as other forms of gastric distress.

Approximately 1 percent of Americans have celiac disease.

Celiac Treatment

There is currently no cure or medical treatment for celiac disease. The only way to keep celiac disease at bay is to adhere to a lifelong gluten-free diet. Unlike food allergies or food intolerances, which may wax and wane during a lifetime or have gradations of seriousness, celiac disease requires complete avoidance of even trace amounts of gluten for the rest of the celiac patient’s life.

Avoiding Gluten

Thanks to heightened awareness of celiac disease, it’s easier than ever for people with this disorder to shop and eat normally. Many foods are naturally gluten-free: especially “whole” foods like meat, fruit, and vegetables. And due to a rise in the perceived effects of gluten intolerance, there are many options for gluten-free bread and crackers as well as other processed food.


Since only trace amounts of gluten can set off the immune system of someone with celiac disease, it is important that any food that is labeled Gluten Free (GF) is truly free from gluten. The Gluten-Free Certification Organization provides verification through a “stringent review process” that any certified GF product has 10 parts per million or less of gluten.

Food Service for Customers with Celiac Disease

The most important tool for people with celiac disease is knowledge. To best serve team members with celiac disease, it is not necessary to provide only certified GF food items (although it is nice to have a few); what is necessary is to provide easily-accessible nutrition information for all food so that everyone can be sure of what they are eating.

In a food service kitchen, it is also crucial to avoid cross-contamination with gluten—like avoiding cross-contamination with nuts for people with nut allergies. This means keeping equipment separate or cleaning it thoroughly between each use. Frequent gluten-spreading culprits include cutting boards, knives, toasters, spatulas/wooden spoons, and even spreadable condiments like butter or mustard. Kitchen employees should also be sure to wash their hands carefully before working with food that will be served as “gluten-free.”

How to Minimize the Damage on Thanksgiving

Lighten Up!

Traditionally, people have thought of Thanksgiving as a chance to overeat: to stuff ourselves as full as the turkey we just consumed.

How to lighten up Thanksgiving recipes

While Thanksgiving can still remain a time to share some favorite foods around the table with family, it doesn’t have to be a complete disaster to the diet. Some simple adaptations to common recipes can minimize the damage; maybe you can even stay awake long enough to watch the game!

Adaptation #1: Mashed Potatoes

For a lot of people, Thanksgiving starts and ends with mashed potatoes. Rich, creamy, and satisfying, they’re the perfect vehicle for gravy and the perfect food to set the foundation for our postprandial food coma. Traditional mashed potatoes can come in at 250 calories and nine grams of fat per serving, so it’s a good place to do a makeover. Make them healthier by substituting a higher fiber vegetable for some of the potatoes: cauliflower, parsnips, and turnips are good choices. Replace heavy cream and butter with low-fat milk and light sour cream or nonfat Greek yogurt. To replace the lost flavor, try add-ins like roasted garlic, caramelized onions, or a little grated cheese.

Adaptation #2: Sweet Potato Casserole

Your grandmother’s sweet potato casserole recipe probably calls for canned yams in syrup, pats of butter, and a topping of marshmallows. While this gooey treat may have the joy of nostalgia, it’s a truckload of sugar (almost 40 grams!) before you even get to dessert. Lighten it up by enjoying the natural sweetness of the yams by roasting them in the oven. Toss cubed sweet potatoes in coconut oil and sprinkle with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground cloves. Spread them on a baking sheet and roast at 350 degrees for about 60 minutes, until the cubes are soft and form a crisp, caramelized crust.

Adaptation #3: Green Bean Casserole

Think: with all the rich food on Thanksgiving, do you really need your green vegetable to be doused with a can of creamy condensed soup? This yummy Thanksgiving staple, which as a green vegetable dish should be one of the healthier ones at the table, actually clocks in at over 275 calories, 21 grams of fat, and a whopping 10 grams of saturated fat. If tradition dictates that you must have a green bean casserole at the table, check out these five tips on making it healthier (hint: start by ditching the canned soup). Even better, keep your green beans healthy by simplifying this dish: sauté fresh or flash-frozen green beans with a little minced shallot and olive oil, or pan-roast them with garlic. The touch of bright freshness will serve as a great counterpoint to the rest of the rich, heavy dinner.

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at USConnect!

Foods That Appear Good for You… But Aren’t: Part Two

At USConnect®, we want to help people reach their health goals. That’s why we offer so many fresh food options and our dietician-managed The Right Choice … for a Healthier You™ program. That’s also why we use this blog to dispel some health myths, like the idea that diet soda is healthy, or that anything with vegetables is good for you. This post is a follow-up to our last Foods that Appear Good for You… But Aren’t article, where we help you avoid some common “health food” traps.

Foods that appear to be healthy but aren't

Trick Food #1: Bottled Salad Dressing

Raw vegetables: healthy. Most bottled salad dressings: not so much. To make lettuce and other vegetables more palatable, most salad dressings rely on trans-fats, sugar, and artificial flavors. Further, prepared or restaurant salads are often drenched in the stuff, turning a potentially healthy meal into a nutritional disaster. One popular restaurant’s kale salad has 600 calories and a whopping 40 grams of sugar!

Trick Food #2: Margarine

For decades, marketers promoted margarine as a healthier option than butter because it contains less saturated fat, which some studies associated with higher risk of heart disease. More recent studies, however, suggest that trans fats, not saturated fats, are the culprit. Margarine is often laden with refined oils and trans fats, making it a less healthy option. Your best bet? Use butter sparingly, and don’t assume that margarine is a healthier option.

Trick Food #3: Instant Oatmeal

Oatmeal may seem like a hearty, healthy breakfast, and it certainly can be. The rule, as with most packaged foods, is to read the nutritional information carefully. A popular instant maple and brown sugar oatmeal package, for instance, contains 12 grams of sugars, but only three grams of fiber and four grams of protein. To really keep you going until lunch, a bowl of oatmeal should have at least four grams of fiber and five grams of protein. And since the American Heart Association recommends that men eat no more than 36 grams and women eat no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day, try to cut your breakfast sugar intake to below six grams.




Tips for Healthy Eating in Cold Weather

What are the best foods to eat in the winter?

Best foods to eat in the winter

As January turns to February, New Year’s resolutions fade into distant memories. The weather is cold and grey, and snow and ice make outdoor exercise unsafe or just unpalatable. Above all, our bodies crave comfort: fleece pajamas, wool sweaters, and comforting food. Carmen Honnef, USConnect’s own Registered Dietician and manager of our The Right Choice … for a Healthier You program, says: “Cold weather may tend to lead us towards comfort foods like pasta, pizza and casseroles. Enjoy these dishes by using whole grains, adding vegetables to casseroles, and limiting the saturated fat sources (like cheese and sausage) to half the amount or a lighter option.”

Cold weather drives us to food that’s hot, quick, and filling, like canned soup or fast food. We also tend to crave carbohydrates, an issue that isn’t purely psychological; the reduced sunlight in winter can lead to lower serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a naturally-occurring chemical that regulates moods and suppresses appetite. When our bodies need serotonin, what we feel is cravings for sweet or starchy carbohydrates.

Despite the fact that our bodies seem to want to fight our ability to eat healthily during the winter, there are some ways to get your body what it needs without sacrificing your diet. Read on for our dietician-certified tips for healthy eating in cold weather.

  • Replace simple carbohydrates with complex ones. Instead of saltines or cookies, go for whole grains like quinoa, farro, or barley. These foods can boost serotonin without causing sleepiness or carb-overload.
  • Get some sun. If the weather permits, get outside for at least 15 minutes a day. A brisk walk is good for both your body and your brain! Moving your desk to a sunny spot can also help.
  • Eat for immunity. Winter vegetables like squash and Brussels sprouts are packed with vitamins and anti-oxidants. They’re also more filling that some summer vegetables like asparagus or green beans.
  • Go for frozen. If you’re craving out-of-season fruits or vegetables, go for frozen instead of canned. The canning process can sacrifice many of the nutrients of fresh produce, while flash-frozen produce maintains its properties. Many canned vegetables and fruits also contain unneeded sugar or salt.
  • Add some warmth to your salad. Many people avoid salads in the winter because they want something warm to counteract the cold weather. But salads and warmth do not need to be enemies; try topping your salad with something warm to counteract the chill of cold greens. As we discuss in our post on food pairings, an egg on a salad of dark greens provides extra nutritional benefits, or try grilled chicken, lean steak, or shrimp.

Holiday Leftovers: a Recipe Roundup

By the third day after Thanksgiving, everyone is sick of turkey sandwiches. With more holidays in front of us, we need some fresh ideas on what to do with our leftover holiday food. We’ve scoured the latest recipes to bring you this roundup of the most delicious things to do with that turkey and fixings.

Need some inspiration for those holiday leftovers?

  1. Lighten Up: A twist on traditional tacos, this healthy recipe for turkey tacos uses iceberg lettuce leaves instead of tortillas as a wrap for turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and a savory black bean salsa. Finish with red onion and cilantro for brightness, and you’ve got the perfect recipe to eat turkey without the food coma.
  2. Take Stock: Do not throw out that turkey carcass! Throw it into a pot with some carrots, celery, and onion. Pour water and/or chicken broth over the bones and vegetables and let simmer for at least four hours (eight is preferable). Strain the bones from the top, and you’ve got a rich, healthy stock that you can use for soups and sauces or freeze for future use.
  3. Greek System: You know that turkey stock you just made? Use it to make this delicious Avgolemono: a creamy Greek soup with turkey, lemon, and rice. It’s light, too; the creaminess comes from eggs, not cream. It’s easy to make, and much more elegant than regular turkey noodle soup.
  4. Spice It Up: You can use that same rich turkey stock to make another light and flavorful soup: Turkey Caldo Tlalpeño, named for the area near Mexico City. This recipe includes healthy chickpeas and uses chipotle chiles in adobo sauce to get its unique flavor.
  5. Stellar Stuffing: We’ve given you four healthy recipes; now here’s a decadent one. Turn your leftover stuffing into fried stuffing bites, and use your leftover cranberry sauce as a dip. Stuffing is formed into cubes, dredged in egg and breadcrumbs, and fried on the stove: not healthy, but delicious!

The Link Between Processed Red Meat and Cancer

October 2015 will be remembered as a bad month for bacon-lovers; that’s the time when the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that processed red meat—like that found in The recent report that red meat, deli meats and bacon could cause cancer has everyone up in arms. But before you drop your sandwich, take a step back and look at the facts. sausage, bacon, hot dogs, and salami—causes an increased risk of cancer. The report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer puts eating processed red meat in the same risk category as inhaling asbestos or smoking tobacco; that is, it is designated “carcinogenic for humans.”

The report, which was published in British medical journal The Lancet Oncology, defines processed meat as “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.” Just 50 grams of processed meat per day—equivalent to two slices of smoked ham—raises the risk of colorectal (colon) cancer by 18%. However, it is important to note that the risk is not very high to start with, and while smoking, asbestos, and processed meat all carry the same label, they are not all equally dangerous.

In a move that has the meat industry up in arms, the report also cites unprocessed red meat (steak, lamb chops, etc.) as being “probably carcinogenic for humans.” While the correlation to cancer from processed meat is mainly to colorectal cancer, the correlation to cancer from unprocessed meats is to pancreatic and advanced prostate cancer.

Of course, as spokespeople from the meat industry were quick to rebut the report, saying that the IARC “tortured” the data and cherry-picked results. As most of us know, red meat is not only an important source of protein, but also one of the most reliable and robust sources of iron. As with most dietary recommendations, the same advice probably pertains to red meats; eat a balanced diet that is low in fat and high in nutrients and protein, and you probably won’t go far wrong.

Fall 2015 Food Trends

The food and foodservice industries are like cruise ships; they’re huge, and they turn very slowly. Unlike fashion trends, which change with each season, food trends change slowly over time, with new products gaining a niche market before expanding more broadly.Which foods are trending this fall as the most popular?

That being said, this fall’s food trends follow the large-scale shift that we’ve been experiencing for the past few years: a focus on healthier food and a willingness to pay more for it. In fact, the 2015 Nielsen Global Health and Wellness Survey indicates that 90 percent of 30,000 respondents are willing to pay more for healthier food. Organic food sales have tripled in the past decade and continue to rise, and consumers are looking more closely than ever at their food’s labels to get a clearer sense of what they’re putting into their bodies.

This fall, we’re seeing the healthy food trend continue, with many traditionally unhealthy foods trying to clean up their acts. Competing with candy bars, dark chocolate-covered fruit and nuts are gaining popularity due to the anti-oxidants in dark chocolate and the vitamins and nutrients in fruits and nuts. Gummy fruit candy is now available with 20 grams of whey protein.

Consumers are keeping an eye on what they eat, and they’re more likely than ever to want clear, readable labels. The “clean label” movement focuses on ingredient lists that sound like consumers could find them in their own kitchens. The movement has even spawned its own conference and a growing consulting industry! Businesses are also increasingly “freeing” their foods of ingredients that consumers view as being undesirable; thus, look for more products bearing “gluten-free,” “GMO-free,” “nut-free,” or other “-free” labels.

The market for local food also continues to grow, with more consumers than ever being willing to pay more for locally source food or ingredients. Local sourcing can be a headache for companies, and many are responding with a mix of local and regional ingredients. This increases the freshness of the food, supports the local economy, and reduces the environmental impact of the supply chain: all factors that influence consumer purchasing.


DIY Trail Mix – How to Create the Perfect Blend for Energy, Health, and Taste

The weather’s finally starting to cool down, which means that hiking season is here! For at least the past century, trail mix has been a preferred snack for hikers; it’s easily portable, lightweight, and doesn’t need to be refrigerated. With the right ingredients, it provides sugar for a quick burst of energy as well as protein for more sustained efforts: factors that also make it a great snack for work. As with most foods, however, it’s important to check the nutritional information on prepared trail mixes before assuming that they’re all healthy; some of them are so loaded with sugar, fat, and salt that they should be treated like a dessert or special treat, not a healthy snack.

how to make your own healthier trail mix

One way to avoid confusion about trail mixes is to make your own. You can craft it to meet your own specific tastes and be sure to avoid any surprises in the fat, sugar, and salt departments. Here’s a handy guide on making your own trail mix.

Go crazy: add protein with nuts, legumes, and seeds.

The base of your trail mix—at least 50%—should be comprised of nuts, legumes, and seeds for protein. Whenever possible, choose options without extra salt and fat; you can always add your own salt later. These are good nut choices:

  • Almonds
  • Hazelnuts
  • Cashews
  • Chestnuts
  • Pistachios

Good legume choices include the following:

  • Peanuts
  • Soybeans/edamame (dried or roasted)
  • Chickpeas (dried or roasted)

These are good seed choices:

  • Pumpkin
  • Hemp
  • Flax
  • Chia
  • Sesame

Go slower: add sugar and fiber with dried fruit.

Dried fruit is a delicious part of many trail mixes. It provides a little sweetness, a little tartness, and some sugar and fiber to get you through the day. As with your protein choices, try to avoid extra fat and sugar. Banana chips, for instance, are often fried! And some dried fruits are loaded with sugar. When adding dried fruit to your trail mix, aim for about 40% of the total. Good dried fruit options include these:

  • Cranberries
  • Raisins
  • Blueberries
  • Apple chips
  • Cherries
  • Dates
  • Figs

Be careful: add treats.

Added sparingly, treats like candy can make your trail mix extremely appealing, but make sure to keep the percentage to no more than 10%. Yummy treats include the following:

  • M&Ms
  • Chocolate-covered fruit or pretzels
  • Yogurt-covered fruit or pretzels
  • Chocolate chips