• NK’s Thoughts

Supporting your bone health

Bone health can be supported & optimised by nutrition at all stages of the life cycle. Below are some of the key areas to focus on & our top tips to ensure that your bones are strong to support normal daily activities.  If you are an athlete, supporting your bone health is essential for optimal performance while helping to minimise the risk of injury.

Adequate energy

Energy availability can have an impact on our bone health. Energy availability is the amount of energy leftover in our body after we exercise- this energy is used for essential processes in our body.

If we don’t get enough energy this can negatively impact our bone mineral density. This can lead to increased stress fractures in athletes and ultimately could be a contributor to developing osteoporosis. Making sure you fuel your body with adequate energy will protect your bones. How can I know if I’m getting enough? Signs of under fueling include recurring illness (always getting coughs and colds), increased frequency of injury, fatigue, poor recovery, low mood, poor concentration, IBS symptoms (e.g. bloating), irritability, and a loss of your period.

Calcium & Vitamin D

We all remember the song from the ad- those bones need calcium!

Recent research shows that 41% of Irish women and 30% of Irish men are limiting or avoiding dairy, with 10% believing it’s bad for their health. Dairy foods are one of our richest sources of calcium in the diet, and certainly are not bad for our health.

Including 3 portions of dairy a day will help you reach your recommended calcium intake for the day.

Other calcium rich foods that aren’t dairy products include fortified plant based milk, fortified cereal, sardines, tinned fish. By including these in our diet regularly this can also help us meet our recommended intake.

Don’t forget about the sunshine vitamin – vitamin D. Food sources of vitamin D include eggs, oily fish, and fortified milks; however, we don’t get enough in the diet and the sunshine provides us with the most vitamin D. Vitamin D helps our body absorb calcium. Public health recommendations in Ireland state that we should all be taking a 10ug supplement between October and March. Older adults, those with darker skin, or those already deficient will need more vitamin D.

Osteoporosis – look after your bone health!

Osteoporosis is a direct consequence of unattained peak bone mass in youth as well as excessive loss of bone mass in later life. Did you know osteoporosis affects 200 million people worldwide and is a leading cause of fractures, disability, mortality and reduced quality of life. Following the menopause hormonal changes consequently lead to the accelerated reduction of bone mineral density. As a result, this can contribute to the future development of osteoporosis. 1 in 2 post-menopausal women compared to 1 in 5 men over the age of 50 develop an osteoporotic fracture in their lifetime.  Did you know that a post-menopausal woman’s annual risk of fracture is greater than her combined risk of cardiovascular disease and breast cancer.

If you are reading this & thinking ‘this doesn’t relate to me I’m only young I don’t have to worry about that’, it is important to prioritise bone health at all stages of life! Now is the time to make changes to support your bone health so that you can help prevent osteoporosis in the future.

Probiotics: the low down

Probiotics: what are they?

‘Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host’ (World Health Organisation).

There has been a dramatic increase in probiotic use worldwide in recent years to the point where it is now one of the most commonly consumed supplements, but what is the conflicting science around it?

Well, our gut plays an essential role in the digestion and absorption of the food we eat, and this is assisted by the many bacteria that live there. When we are born this gut bacteria, or gut flora, is passed to us during birth, and as we grow; genetics, age, lifestyle and most importantly our diet add to this flora.

Did you know that gut bacteria also plays a role in immune defence, and approximately 70% of our immune system is located in our gut (crazy right?!) Therefore, hundreds of years ago, scientists began to question whether they could improve health and immune function by modifying and replacing harmful microbes/bacteria, with useful microbes or ‘good bacteria’. Some of these ‘good bacteria’ you might recognise from advertisements where they refer to their food product containing ‘L. casei cultures’, or ‘Bifidobacterium genera’. 

Studies have demonstrated some effectiveness of probiotics in reducing the risk or symptoms of travellers’ diarrhoea, respiratory tract infections, IBS, inflammatory bowel disease, and ulcerative colitis when taken correctly. However, a lot is still unknown and therefore the European Food Safety Authority is yet to approve them for widespread medical use.

 Why might you consider taking a probiotic?

With continued investigation into the necessity and effectiveness of probiotics, we are still learning how they might impact our health. All humans have different diets and genetic backgrounds, therefore have different gut bacteria make up, another thing that makes us all unique! For this reason, people may respond differently to probiotics.

There are some cases where we have seen progress in proving their effectiveness:

Athletes: The International Society of Sports Nutrition have demonstrated their support for probiotics in certain cases for athletes. Athletes have varying gut microbiota in comparison to other populations due to volume of exercise, and higher protein consumption.

The immune defence decreases when an athlete’s training load is increased. This happens as intense, prolonged exercise – especially in the heat- increases the permeability of our gut making them more susceptible to infection. Therefore, specific probiotic supplementation for athletes has shown to promote healthy immune responses during regular, vigorous training.

Antibiotics: although antibiotics are effective in killing bad bacteria that may give you an infection, they kill the good bacteria also. Therefore, recommendations to consume a probiotic alongside an antibiotic can help maintain levels of good gut flora.

Foreign Travel: foreign travel can introduce your body to bacteria it is not used to.  It can also elevate exposure to pathogens that may induce illness like travellers’ diarrhoea. Taking a probiotic 2-3 weeks prior, during, and 1 week post travel can assist your gut in preventing travellers diarrhoea.

Did you know that many foods we regularly eat are fortified with probiotics?! This includes some yoghurts (Yakult and Actimel yoghurt drinks, Glenisk natural yoghurt), cheese, snacks, nutrition bars, and infant formula. These foods are all sufficient for maintenance of good bacteria and have much lower doses of live microorganisms than supplements. Including some of these in your diet regularly will delight your gut bacteria!

There is emerging evidence to suggest fermented foods are beneficial in providing health promoting bacteria so they might be a nice addition to your diet too! These foods may include; kombucha, kefir milk, sourdough bread and miso soup.

Prebiotics: feed your gut bacteria

Prebiotics are the foods that our gut bacteria thrive on to become healthier and stronger, and therefore influence our overall gut health. They not only feed our good bacteria, but also positively impact the environment that these good bacteria live in. Dietary prebiotics for the most part come in forms of carbohydrates. They cannot be broken down fully by enzymes in our stomach, or intestines. While all prebiotics are fibres, it is not the case that all fibres have prebiotic effects on our gut flora.

Some foods that prebiotics naturally exist in include; asparagus, garlic, wheat, onions, prunes, beans, peas, banana, leeks.

Probiotics in a nutshell

  1. Probiotics are good, live bacteria that live in our gut and play an important role in digestion, absorption, mood and immunity.
  2. Evidence has demonstrated some effectiveness of probiotics in reducing the risk of gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS, travellers’ diarrhoea, respiratory tract infections, inflammatory bowel disease, and ulcerative colitis.
  3. Many foods that we regularly eat have probiotics in them. These include yoghurt, cheese, some milks, and some fermented foods.
  4. Situations where you might consider taking a probiotic supplement include; athletes during vigorous training where immune systems may be tested, during and after a course of antibiotics, and before & during foreign travel.
  5. Don’t forget to feed your healthy gut bacteria with prebiotics i.e. include lots of fruit, veggies and legumes in your diet.

We hope this helped to unravel the evidence surrounding probiotics and when they might be of benefit.

Portion sizes: part 2

What is a portion size?

In our first blog post we discussed how portion sizes differ between the three macronutrients, carbohydrates, protein & fat. It is important to note that with different fruit & vegetables & as you will see below, 1 fruit/vegetable does not always equal 1 portion. Generally, the overall size of the fruit or vegetable will determine a portion. For example 1 medium fruit (banana, orange, apple) = 1 portion, whereas 2 small fruits (plum, mandarin, kiwi) = 1 portion.

How many portions should I have each day?

For the majority of the general population, we should aim for 5-7 portions of fruit & vegetables per day. Athletes should aim for at least 6 or more as fruit & vegetables contain vitamins, minerals & antioxidants which help to aid recovery & support immune function. Try to split your intake evenly, aiming for a similar amount of both fruit & vegetables in your diet. Yes, there is sugar in fruit (& vegetables) however, the positives of all of the other nutrients present outweigh the negatives that the sugar may have.  This is often a question we’re met with so in case it was on your mind, we thought we better set the record straight

How can I increase my fruit & vegetable intake?

This is a very common question we get asked! Thankfully, there are lots of different ways you can start to add fruit & vegetables to your daily diet. Below are a few of our favourite tips:

  • If you have very little or no fruit & vegetables in your diet currently, start small. A nice way to get yourself started is by trying to add 1 portion to each meal. For example, have a banana with porridge or add spinach to an omelette. Add onions/tomatoes/salad to a wrap for lunch or look to add a bowl of homemade vegetable soup to your lunch. If you are having a curry for dinner add peppers/green beans/corn/onions. That’s 3 portions – you’re already over halfway there!
  • Add a handful of spinach/kale to a smoothie
  • Blitz your curry/bolognese sauce to remove the consistency of the vegetables

We hope this series has helped to iron out any questions you might have had around portion sizes!

Let’s talk portion sizes

What is a portion size?

Great question! A portion size is the recommended amount of a particular food. All foods have different portion size recommendations and can depend on the size of the food e.g. 1 banana is a portion of fruit whereas 2 kiwis is one portion of fruit or the nutritional composition of food e.g. nuts are energy dense so a recommended portion size is considerably smaller than what you might think.

How do I measure a portion size?

Using your fist can act as a really nice guide. Always use dry/raw foods when measuring portion sizes to ensure consistency. Your fist will work nicely for carbohydrates like pasta/rice/oats/couscous. Wondering what a portion size of bread/potatoes looks like? Well 2 thin slices (sliced pan) = 1 portion of bread & 2 medium or 4 small (egg-sized) potatoes = 1 portion of potatoes! Your palm will act as a guide for protein sources like meat & fish while your thumb will help you to determine a portion size for fat sources like cheese & nuts/seeds!

How many portions should I have each day?

This is a hard question to answer without knowing a lot more information about you as an individual. Your gender, age, weight, physical activity levels and goals will all influence this. This is why we always recommend an individualised approach to nutrition. We know that carbohydrates fuel high-intensity exercise so if your lifestyle is predominantly sedentary, you will require less carbohydrates in comparison to an athlete who trains for several hours per day. Your protein intake should always be consistent regardless of your activity levels, aiming for ~4 protein feedings per day!

Check out our other blog post where we discuss portion sizes in relation to fruit & vegetables!

Sleep: the forgotten superpower

Why is it so important?

Sleep is one of the most underrated lifestyle factors and a core pillar of health. A lack of sleep/poor sleep quality is associated with a range of everyday & athletic performance deficits. They include decreased concentration/focus/lethargy, suppressed immune function, increased reaction times & reduced precision/accuracy to name a few.

Did you know sleep can also affect your appetite & affinity for certain foods?

Sleep plays a role in regulating our hunger hormones. After a poor night of sleep the appetite hormone ghrelin (that signals to our brain when we are full) is increased . In tandem, release of the satiety hormone leptin (signals when we are full) is suppressed. Ultimately this can lead to consumption of extra calories.
After a poor night of sleep our affinity for more convenient, readily available foods is also increased. Again, this can lead to consumption of extra calories by choosing energy dense foods (e.g. crisps, takeaways).

So what small changes can you make to improve your sleep?

  • Aim for 8 hours of quality sleep per night. If this goal seems a long way off at the moment, start working towards that 8 hour mark in 30 minute increments
  • Ensure your room is cool & dark
  • Avoid caffeine containing beverages at least 6 hours before bed. Caffeine is a stimulant with a half life of 6 hours (if you consume a cup of coffee at 7pm, 1/2 of the caffeine is still in your system at 1am). This might not affect your ability to fall asleep but it can interfere with your sleep quality
  • Try having a hot shower at least 60 minutes before bed. This will raise your body temperature allowing it to gradually drop over the hour or so before bed which can help improve sleep latency (time it takes to fall asleep)

Hopefully this helps to highlight the importance of sleep & that often it’s role in health is in fact, slept on (excuse the pun)!

Whey protein powder: friend or foe?

Do we need it?

Well, we know that protein is the building blocks of muscle. It helps to support muscle growth, recovery, retention & repair. It is important to note that resistance exercise is the best way or ‘gold standard’ for building muscle mass. After exercise, both muscle protein breakdown & muscle growth occur at the same time, this is a natural response. The inclusion of protein in your post-exercise meal helps to ensure that muscle growth exceeds breakdown allowing for an overall net gain of muscle protein! So when resistance exercise & protein work in tandem, muscle gain is optimised!

So how much protein should I have?

This depends on several factors. While whey protein can be a helpful addition to your diet, we would always recommend opting for a ‘food first approach’. Try to meet your protein intake through whole foods as not only do they contain protein, but they also have vitamins & minerals that are not provided in whey protein powder. Opt for milk, Greek yoghurt, animal meat or eggs for example. If you still struggle to meet your protein requirements, or they are particularly high (e.g. recovering from injury, bodybuilders, team-sport athletes) introducing whey protein powder could be helpful.

How do I use it?

Whey protein powder is so versatile! It comes in a wide range of flavours and can be added to anything – from your porridge in the morning to a protein ball snack. It is a useful option to add to milk/water after a gym session to optimise muscle gain, particularly if you don’t plan to have a meal for a few hours, it will help to initiate this process.

We hope that this helps to answer any questions you might have about whey protein powder!

Cow’s milk vs plant-based alternatives

Got milk?

Milk has been around for a long time. It is our first source of nutrition from birth onwards, cementing its important as part of our nutrition through the life cycle. Recently the use of plant-based alternatives to cow’s milk (e.g. oat, soya coconut) has surged. However it’s important to note that cow’s milk & plant-based alternatives are not nutritionally equivalent. In fact, a law was introduced in Europe to ban the use of the word ‘milk’ to market plant-based alternatives, reserving the use of the word for milk produced by animals only!

How are they different?

When it comes to comparing the nutritional value between cow’s milk & plant-based alternatives there are a few things to remember. Cows milk is rich in protein, iodine, potassium & calcium. While the plant-based alternative soya compares in terms of protein content, the protein in cow’s milk is of higher nutritional quality. It is more readily digested in comparison to it’s plant alternative.

Although many plant-based alternatives are fortified to improve their nutritional composition, the type of fortificant used will determine the calcium bioavailability (how well our bodies can absorb & use this calcium) of plant-based alternatives. Most are also devoid of iodine which is important for brain function & development. The carbohydrate component of cow’s milk is the naturally occurring sugar lactose, while many plant-based alternatives contain added sugar or sweeteners.

But wait, there’s more?

Cow’s milk is also a really nice choice post-exercise with the combination of protein for muscle repair and fluid & electrolytes for rehydration purposes. Chocolate cow’s milk will also provide additional carbohydrates which is particularly useful after exercise >60 minutes when the body’s stores of carbohydrates may be depleted e.g. competitive match, long endurance run, high-intensity pitch training session

It’s safe to say plant-based alternatives aren’t comparable to cow’s milk based on their nutritional composition. However, they can be a useful product for those who may be lactose intolerant, vegan or simply don’t enjoy the taste of cow’s milk!

Why you should consume protein post-exercise

Do we need it?

Well, we know that protein is the building blocks of muscle. It helps to support muscle growth, recovery, retention & repair. It is important to note that resistance exercise is the best way or ‘gold standard’ for building muscle mass. After exercise, both muscle protein breakdown & muscle growth occur at the same time, this is a natural response. The inclusion of protein in your post-exercise meal helps to ensure that muscle growth exceeds breakdown allowing for an overall net gain of muscle protein! So when resistance exercise & protein work in tandem, muscle gain is optimised!

So how much protein should I have?

  • A simple calculation will help you to figure out what a protein feeding should look like for you: multiply your body weight (in kg) by 0.4. For example, a 75kg male/female = 75(0.4) = 30g protein
  • It’s important to note that as we get older, the receptors (aka signals) in our body that initiate muscle growth require more protein in each feeding to be stimulated. The muscle protein receptor we are trying to target is stimulated by leucine, an essential amino acid. The leucine content is higher in high quality protein sources (meat, eggs, dairy) than plant protein sources for example, which is why we recommend you try to include a variety of protein sources in your diet. As we age, our muscle protein receptor becomes less receptive to dietary protein intake so older adults should aim for closer to 40g protein per feeding to help stimulate muscle growth.
  • Protein intake should be split evenly throughout the day over at least 4 feedings (ensuring that one of these feedings is included post-exercise!)
  • Protein intake should remain consistent. Try to consume the same amount of protein on both training & rest days

Hopefully some of these tips will help you to make sure that your protein intake is sufficient to support both health & exercise.

Hydration: an important part of performance

Did you know the human body is ~60-70% water?

Our bodies use water in all cells, organs & tissues to help regulate temperature & other bodily functions. Basically, we can’t survive without it! So ensuring we are adequately hydrated is important for optimal health. Being as little as 2% dehydrated can impair performance, both in our everyday lives & from an athletic perspective. Some of the consequences of being dehydrated include early fatigue, increased reaction times, poor concentration/focus & lethargy.

So how can you improve your hydration status?

  • Keep a water bottle/glass of water on your desk/beside your bed. This will act as a reminder, hopefully helping to avoid the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality!
  • Want to monitor your own hydration status? Simply check your urine colour. A pale-straw like yellow colour indicates you are adequately hydrated. Anything darker….fluid intake needs to be improved!
  • Replace fluid lost through sweating or increased urination. During illness more fluid can be lost too. It’s important to keep fluid intake & output balanced to avoid dehydration
  • All fluids including tea/coffee contribute to your hydration status
  • Fruit/veg, salad & soups all contribute too
  • Add a slice of lemon, lime or no added sugar squash to your water for some extra flavour

Hopefully some of these tips will help you to make small changes to improve your fluid intake.

You don’t like vegetables?

Have you tried all the vegetables out there? Fair, maybe there has been one or two vegetables that really didn’t tickle your fancy but you shouldn’t exclude the entire plethora of vegetables based on one negative experience. Have faith!
Allow us to explain why. Firstly, vegetables are nutritional powerhouses. They contain vitamins and minerals that are involved in important processes and reactions in the body. Secondly, they are packed with fibre which is important for gut health. The fibre in vegetables helps to feed the good bacteria in the gut which in turn positively impacts our immune system and even our mood! Since vegetables are low in calories and full of fibre, they can help to add bulk to a meal without compromising on that feeling of fullness after you have eaten. FABULOUS!

Eating a variety of vegetables is also important. There are different vitamins and minerals e.g. spinach is a source of plant-based iron while red peppers are a source of vitamin C. In terms of our gut bacteria, there are 100’s of different species and just like people they have different ‘taste palates’, so variety is encouraged to feed the different bacteria. Having 20 or more different plant foods in our diet each week has been recommended so try to include as much colour on your plate as possible!

So how can you improve your vegetable intake?

Disguise the vegetables. This can be particularly helpful if you don’t like the texture (or if you have kids with challenging palates!). Try adding a handful of kale to a smoothie or blending a Bolognese/curry sauce once cooked.  This will remove the texture of the vegetables and create a smooth consistency before adding your protein source.

Can you add an extra vegetable to your dinner? Try adding green beans, peppers, mangetout, onions or corn to your curry for example.

Use nutritious dips to add extra flavour if you are having raw vegetables e.g. have guacamole or hummus (both of which contain healthy fats) with some raw carrots.

Try different cooking methods. Roasting vegetables creates a sweeter taste (try peppers, courgettes, butternut squash, carrots, onions for example).

If you are a parent/guardian role model behaviour can be helpful when trying to introduce new foods to your children.

Frozen fruit & veg are a great alternative to fresh produce if you’re looking to reduce food waste and save a few bob in the process. It also allows us some more variety in our diet. Research has shown that frozen fruit & veg is sometimes even more nutrient-dense than fresh options after a few days in storage!