Seaweed for Health

Yesterday I revealed the results of my investigation into imitation crab, which shows up in sushi rolls and salads every now and then. Turns out it’s not really a “whole food,” considering it contains artificial colors and flavors and is highly processed. But the good news is that other types of sushi can be healthy, and it’s even better when you pair it with a fresh seaweed salad.

Seaweed salad usually contains a few different types of seaweeds, such as nori, kelp, hijiki, kombu, wakame, arame, or dulse. Seaweeds can grow in salt water or fresh water lakes, and Japan is currently the largest producer and exporter of sea vegetables. They have been enjoying them for over 10,00 years, and many of our recipes using seaweeds are inspired by Japanese cuisine. Seaweeds are becoming more popular and can now be found in most health food stores and even some regular grocery stores, rather than just at Asian food markets.

Seaweed is known for its strong nutritional profile. They contain very few calories – less than 20-30 calories per half cup serving. They are rich in iodine, with one serving containing up to 300% of our recommended daily intake of iodine. Fish is another great whole food source of iodine, but other than that it can be difficult to obtain from a whole foods diet. Table salt is iodized, but it is also highly processed and since the iodine is added in, it may not be as bioavailable to our bodies. Sea vegetables are also rich in potassium, magnesium, phosphorous, calcium, iron, tryptophan, folate and other B-vitamins, vitamin A and vitamin K.

Those who consume kelp and other sea vegetables on a regular basis as part of a whole foods diet will experience amazing health benefits and transformations. The phytonutrients in seaweeds work to inhibit the growth of cancers. Iodine found in seaweeds is vital for proper thyroid function, because iodine is a component of thyroid hormone that is essential for regulating metabolism and many other functions inside our cells. The anti-inflammatory potential of seaweeds comes from its magnesium content, which helps with things like migraine headaches and asthma. Seaweeds can also cause relief for women going through menopause by easing symptoms.

Seaweed salad is available at most sushi restaurants, but that doesn’t have to be your only source. Since seaweeds are so available to us now, I recommend keeping some in your cupboard and using it for things like salads, soups and on top of some chicken or cooked veggies. Right now I have Pacific arame and dulse flakes in my kitchen. The arame is really great for salads or soups (pictured below). It needs to be soaked in cold water for about 15 minutes and then is ready to be eaten. The texture is a little slimy (for lack of a better word), kind of what you'd expect for seaweed texture.

The dulse flakes are great for sprinkling on just about anything that would taste good with a saltier flavor. I love the flakes because they are so easy to use – no soaking or cooking necessary (pictured below).

If you are looking for some variety in your diet and a great whole food source of iodine and other minerals, I recommend picking up some seaweed/sea vegetables at a health food store. Kelp can be harder to find but is available to order online from certain companies that harvest and dry the kelp (British Columbia Kelp is one good company I know of). Don’t be afraid to try new things with the seaweeds, and next time you’re out for sushi, be sure to order the seaweed salad!

Imitation Crab Meat

On Sunday evening, Ed and I ordered sushi for dinner. One of our favorite rolls is the spider roll, which is filled with soft shell crab. Ed introduced me to soft shell crab (pictured below) a couple years ago when they had them fresh at our local butcher’s shop. We bought two, threw them on the grill, and ate them for dinner – you can eat the entire thing, including the shell, and it was delicious! I’m a Midwestern girl so my seafood exposure was pretty minimal until I met Ed and was introduced to things like soft shell crab and Maine lobster. Anyway, back to the spider roll… I noticed it was also filled with some imitation crab, which I didn’t like. Imitation crab is also (and, most commonly) found in a California roll. Any food with the name “imitation” in it raises a red flag, so I decided to do some research.

According to Wikipedia, imitation crab is made from pulverized white fish flesh that is shaped and cured such that it looks like a crab leg. It does not contain any real crab meat – the primary fish used is Alaskan pollock from the North Pacific, but cod is also used. Egg whites or other binding ingredients are often mixed in with the white fish, and then artificial or crab-derived flavorings are applied to make it taste more like real crab. The texture is rubbery, and it tastes slightly salty.

But the worst part is the red outer-layer. I’m sure you’ve noticed that imitation crab has a bright red surface. Well, this is actually food coloring! Sometimes I wonder why so much effort is put into making something “imitation”. Why not just call it “Alaskan pollock sushi” and skip the food coloring and artificial crab flavoring?

Imitation crab meat is highly processed, and since it’s cooked during the curing process, it is never raw. Aside from being used in sushi, soups and salads, imitation crab is used as fish bait. From a nutritional standpoint, it has less protein and potassium than real crab meat, and also a lot more sodium. However, some people eat imitation crab in place of real crab because it is lower in cholesterol. One serving of imitation crab has about 80 calories, less than 1 gram of fat, 30% of your daily sodium intake, and about 6 grams of protein. Real crab has about 80 calories per serving, 1.5 grams of fat, 10% of your daily sodium intake, and about 17 grams of protein. Imitation crab contains about 20 mg of cholesterol, while real crab has about 45 mg.

Sushi can be very healthy and nutritious, but I recommend staying away from the imitation crab. It’s not the worst food in the world, but it is highly processed and contains artificial colors and flavors. The rest of sushi is actually made up of whole foods, and is especially beneficial when ordered with brown rice instead of white rice. The fish contains many healthy omega-3s, and there are usually some veggies or avocado included as well. One thing to be aware of is that some sushi restaurants use mayonnaise in their rolls to make them more flavorful and easier to stick together. I’ve found that the nicer the restaurant, the less likely it is that they’ve used mayonnaise. Also, try to order a seaweed salad with your sushi. Tomorrow I'll blog about the benefits of seaweed in the diet.


Nutrition & Exercise: Tips for Optimal Performance

We’ve talked about the importance of the proper balance and types of carbohydrates, protein and fats in the diet, especially for those who are exercising regularly or training for an athletic event. Now I just want to touch on a few other important components to an athlete’s health, and how proper nutrition can keep their performance at an optimal level.

Bone Health

Bone remodeling is when mature bone tissue is removed from the skeleton and new bone is formed, and it is constantly occurring inside of our bodies. It is especially active after a bone injury but also helps keep bones strong during daily activities. Bone remodeling is necessary for proper bone growth and health. Calcium bioavailability, hormonal status, and weight-bearing exercise are all involved in the regulation of bone remodeling. Walking, running, yoga, pilates, tai chi and weight training are all activities that help increase bone density. For people who exercise, adequate nutrients from whole food sources are required for optimal bone density. Some of the most important nutrients for bone health include calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and vitamin D.

High Activity Levels & Free Radicals

High activity levels do create more free radicals inside our bodies. Free radicals are ions that move freely around cells and damage cell membranes, enzymes and protein structures. We accumulate these when we exercise because there is not enough oxygen to keep the ions stable. The best way to counter the effects of free radical buildup is to consume many foods rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants both deactivate free radicals and repair the cells they have damaged. Antioxidants are found in foods high in vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A, selenium and zinc. These foods include almonds, broccoli, spinach, kiwi, berries, carrots, sweet potatoes, mango, tuna, oatmeal and cashews.


Exercising in dry climates, cold weather or high altitudes increases water loss because more fluid is used to moisten the lungs as air comes in. Living and exercising in warmer climates increases water loss through sweat. Dehydration can cause defects in performance, increased heart rate during exercise, hot or dry skin, a fast and weak pulse, disorientation, dizziness, and nausea. Sports drinks, if consumed, should be used in addition to (not in place of) water.

Sidenote on sports drinks: They are 30 times more erosive to your teeth than water, and are either full of real sugar or, even worse, artificial sugars. Many also contain artificial flavors or colors that are not supportive of health. Some healthy alternatives include filtered water with fresh lemon; herbal teas served cold on ice; electrolyte water; and coconut water.

Food Before & After Exercise

A high-carb breakfast is very important for athletes. The carbs will increase blood sugar for morning workouts, or allow for full glycogen stores if you’re doing an afternoon workout. For optimal comfort and performance, time morning meals so that food is out of the stomach by the time you are ready to exercise. Maximize recovery after training workouts with nutrient-dense balanced meals.


Fiber is another very important component to an athlete’s health. Fiber is one part of foods that is almost always taken out during processing – yet another argument for reducing processed foods in your diet! Since processed foods are so low in fiber, many Americans do not get enough fiber on a daily basis. Fiber attracts water into our intestines and then initiates the contraction of intestinal muscles, which helps maintain bowel regularity. It also lowers cholesterol by increasing the cholesterol utilization in our blood to dispose of bile acids. Many athletes will experience cramping during workouts. With a high-fiber diet, they can eliminate waste more efficiently and decrease digestive discomfort. Fresh fruits and vegetables are great sources of fiber, as well as whole grains, flax, beans and lentils.


Nutrition & Exercise: Fats

We’ve covered carbohydrates and protein, but the picture is not complete without fats. Including healthy fats in your diet will help you bring your athletic performance to an optimal level. Fats make up the membranes of each of our cells, and energy is produced within each cell. So, we need plenty of healthy fats so that our cell walls are strong and sturdy and energy can be produced efficiently.

Fats also store the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. All of these vitamins are essential for a healthy body, and without the fat, we lose our stores of them.

When we have the right balance of carbohydrates and fats, we are optimally burning carbohydrate stores to fuel our workouts and also our brain. And as these carbs are being burned, fat stores are also being burned. Therefore, a little extra healthy fat in the diet actually helps us burn more fat during our workouts. Fat-burning comes to a halt when our balance of carbs and fats is off and we are not utilizing them properly inside our bodies. While most people do not burn fat very easily, athletes have the ability to mobilize and burn fat stores during exercise if their workouts are frequent.

The best sources of healthy fats include lean meats, fish, eggs, olive oil, coconut oil, flaxseed oil, nuts, seeds and avocados.

Fats, Exercise Intensity & Endurance

During low-intensity exercise, the body will use fat-burning as its major energy source. Since the demand for energy is slow, fat is more easily burned. During long endurance exercise (90 minutes or more), the body begins to run out of stored glycogen (carbs). The body wants keep some glucose stores to fuel the brain and central nervous system (remember, the brain can only use carbs for energy, so our body protects the brain by keeping some carbs on hand at all times). So, it releases a hormone called glucagon into the blood. Glucagon stimulates the fat tissues to release the fatty acids into the blood, which are then used as fuel. When exercising for longer periods of time, eating during a workout is absolutely crucial. This allows for maintenance of blood glucose levels and ensures there is enough glucose for the brain and muscles. When you eat during long workouts, you extend your glycogen stores for 3-4 hours, which allows you to perform optimally for much longer periods of time. Sometimes just a banana or orange slices is enough. Some people prefer the goos/gels, or things like shot blocks or sports beans. Anything with some sugars and electrolytes works.

Tomorrow I will wrap up this sports nutrition segment with some brief information on hydration, bone health, free radicals, fiber, and eating before or after a workout.


Nutrition & Exercise: Protein

On Friday, I talked about the importance of carbohydrates in the diet of someone who exercises frequently. Carbs provide the main source of fuel for athletes, and are absolutely necessary for optimal performance. However, protein is also very important.

The role of protein is to build things that our bodies need to run efficiently. Protein creates enzymes, hormones, lipoproteins, muscle tissue, connective tissue, red blood cells, and immune system cells. Proteins are the building blocks of all of our cells and are used to build muscle during strength training and repair muscle after a hard workout. When we consume protein, our neurotransmitter and hormone production increases, which enhances our performance.

Protein also replenishes our hemoglobin, which is a protein found in red blood cells. Hemoglobin binds to oxygen and transports it during exercise so we can breath more easily. If we don’t consume enough protein, we will be unable to replenish our hemoglobin and it will be more difficult to get oxygen during exercise.

About 20% of our muscle tissue mass is made up of protein, particularly the parts that are responsible for muscle contraction. If we are not consuming enough protein, it will be difficult to maintain muscle mass and the muscles we do have will not work as efficiently as they could.

There are two types of proteins: complete proteins and incomplete proteins. Complete proteins contain all of the essential amino acids, and can be found in foods such as eggs, beef, poultry, fish, quinoa and soybeans. Incomplete proteins are missing one or more amino acids, and can be found in vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils. Since complete proteins are most likely to be found in animal food sources, it is very important for vegetarians to eat a varied diet. This will help ensure they are receiving enough of each type of amino acid so they can get all the benefits from their proteins. I recommend getting your protein from a whole food source rather than a protein powder whenever possible. Protein from whole foods is more bioavailable to us, and will be more efficiently used within our bodies.

Tomorrow… the importance of fats for athletes.