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Yoga and Nutrition: Two Peas in a Pod!

By Monique Richard MS, RDN, LDN

Yoga and Nutrition: Two Peas in a Pod!September is both Fruits & Veggies More Matters Month and National Yoga Month. As a dietitian and yoga teacher I couldn’t wait to highlight how they can complement each other and are so important for health in mind, body, and spirit! As an integrative registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), I use a variety of coaching techniques, principles of yoga and evidenced-based research in dietetics to help steer patients and clients to more mindful eating, activity and nutritious intake. This allows to them to thrive, living a life fulfilled and energized.

Nature’s Power Houses
What is as colorful as the rainbow, chocked full of antioxidants and phytochemicals, powerful enough to prevent and combat disease, can pack a flavorful punch in a single forkful, but has disappeared from most American’s daily meals? You guessed it—fruits and vegetables. Most Americans are falling short of the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables and in turn are missing out on key nutrients for optimal physical, cognitive and systemic health. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is largely lacking in fiber, potassium, vitamins and minerals and abundant in sugar, saturated fat, sodium, and protein, as well as artificial flavors and preservatives. Not a good recipe for health and wellbeing. We are seeing more and more health consequences from following this dietary pattern coupled with inactivity, such as obesity, hypertension (high blood pressure), hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol), fatty liver, hyperglycemia, uncontrolled diabetes and more.

The more we can increase the quality of our diet and exercise, the more we can possibly prevent diet and lifestyle related disease and health conditions. Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in calories and fat and high in fiber. Diets high in fiber and lower in fat may reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity and some cancers. They can also support gastrointestinal (GI) health (digestive system), regulate cholesterol and blood sugar.1 Since the fiber in fruits and vegetables is filling and you can have more for less calories, they may decrease overall caloric intake which can impact weight management.

Below are some important vitamins and minerals found in fruits and vegetables, not found in other food groups in levels we need, and not the same when taken in the form of a supplement:1
Vitamin A:  for growth, vision and cell integrity
Vitamin C:  supports function and integrity of ligaments and gums, wound healing and production of blood cells
Folate: needed for normal cell division, wound healing and prevention of birth defects
Vitamin B6:  works for muscles, nerves and blood cells to function properly
Vitamin K: helps with blood clotting, bone integrity
Calcium: for bone health, teeth, nerve impulses and many other metabolic processes
Magnesium: supports bones, nerve impulses and muscle function
Iron: transports oxygen and CO2; imperative in immune function and cognitive performance
Selenium: important for fat and vitamin E
metabolism; may protect against cancer
Potassium: regulates many cellular functions; aids in the metabolism of carbohydrate and protein, works inversely to sodium

Get 5-9 servings
Two phrases I hear frequently include ‘How can I possibly get that many fruits and vegetables in (maybe followed by ‘Do I need to buy a juicer?’)?’ and ‘It is so expensive to buy produce.’ First, it is important to understand what a serving is. A serving is a ½ cup cooked vegetables or 1 cup raw vegetables, ½ cup fruit, so 5-9 servings would be about 2 cups fruit and 2 1/2 cup vegetables (equals 5-9 servings). A cup is about as big as your fist. When you think of it in those terms, it is very doable. First, start early. Why not have low-sodium vegetable juice with breakfast—it counts. If you have eggs or egg whites, why not add some tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, onions, and salsa? There are so many options. Throw 1 cup of spinach in a berry and banana smoothie—you just slashed three servings off the total for the day.

Need other suggestions? Use lettuce leaves as your taco bean boat, crunch on peppers and carrots with dip versus chips, pop frozen grapes or mash a frozen banana for a cool snack instead of ice cream. Make it a game to get two different vegetables at every meal. There are so many options.

Regarding the second concern, produce can be expensive but also very inexpensive. Pulses, otherwise known as beans, lentils and legumes, are some of the cheapest and most powerful foods we have to enjoy. Buying canned with no salt added or making your own from dry beans is a great way to get protein and the goodness of vegetables in one item. We’re talking pennies on the dollar per serving.

The frozen section of grocery stores has also exploded with fresh vegetables ‘flash’ frozen at a very reasonable cost as well. Make a stir-fry, a minestrone, a veggie packed pasta dish and enjoy for minimal money and many meals. The farmer’s market and discount section of the grocery store can be a treasure trove of discounted fruits and vegetables. Often imperfect or slightly ripe produce cannot be sold as quickly, but they still need a home and can be just as delicious. The grocer or farmer may offer a discounted rate for slightly bruised or imperfect produce. One’s trash is another’s antioxidant rich dinner side. How will you explore upping the fruits and vegetables in your day?

Benefits of yoga
As an RDN, I use evidenced-based research to guide my professional recommendations (hence my opposition to fad diets, diet pills and other marketing gimmicks). I use those standards to make sure that everything I am doing as a dynamic professional has a strong base of support and is not just anecdotal. For me, it is critical to be well-versed in three areas:  the clinical/medical nutrition therapy aspect, the practical culinary/cooking/shopping/preparation application of food and nutrition and the physical activity wellness/life balance component. Yoga became the third leg of that tripod that tied everything together. It can meet everyone at all stages of change, all ages, and all fitness levels. It offers numerous benefits:  physically, mentally and spiritually. The research surrounding yoga is catching up to what people have discovered and known for thousands of years. Some of the health benefits of yoga include:
• increased respiratory efficiency2
• enhancement in genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion, telomere maintenance and reduction in inflammatory response3
• regulation in mood, anxiety and thalamic GABA levels in the brain4
• alteration in brain structure and pain tolerance5
• attention, stress management and mood6-8
• enhancement of insulin sensitivity and on insulin receptors9,10
• reduction in obesity, reversal of heart disease and decreased weight gain11-12
• reduction in medication13
•mimprovement in mental health status14

More simply stated:  yoga can improve breathing, posture, stamina, flexibility, range of motion, stress management, strength, sleep, mood, pain tolerance and overall general health. It has been cited to help with PTSD, mental illness, body image and eating disorders, as well as anxiety and many other conditions.

Inflammation from arthritis, immune issues and other health conditions can be quelled with proper nutrients and hydration (and a healthy microbiome) as well as movement that works the synovial fluid (fluid in between joints that help them move smoothly and without friction). Yoga can help release tension from tight muscles, increase circulation and fluidity within the body. Pain or discomfort may not completely resolve, but the signals transmitted to the brain when your mind and body are really working in unison can be quite positive and liberating. Over time some conditions may significantly improve if done in a proper and safe way with the necessary modifications for each individual.

Yoga also nurtures self-acceptance, understanding and compassion for oneself, which are all healing qualities. When the body and mind are connected and the body is being nurtured with proper nutrition, health and wellbeing thrive. It is important to remember, as a wonderful colleague of mine pointed out, “Just like medicine and dietetics (nutritional science), yoga is a practice, not perfection.” Benefits come with time, patience and continued practice. Such is the case in our dietary choices. Taking one meal at a time and making it the best it can be is what we want to strive to do to nourish our bodies.

Getting Started
After clearing it with your doctor, see what classes are being offered in your area. There are usually always beginner classes or private lessons offered at facilities and many, many types of yoga and philosophies. Always ask the instructor and read the class descriptions if you are unsure what the class entails. Often senior centers, community centers and churches offer free or discounted classes. If a group setting makes you uncomfortable, try a DVD at home until you’re comfortable with body awareness and more of the names of the asana, or pose/posture.

Oftentimes I may recommend chair yoga for those who are confined to a wheelchair or find it difficult to stand or get up off the floor due to neuropathy, an amputated limb, obesity or an injury. It is exactly what it sounds like—yoga done in and with a chair. This allows the person to focus on breathing without putting weight or pressure on the joints while building a foundation of knowledge for the practice. Balance, stamina, endurance and the mind-body connection can still be achieved in a safer and more comfortable format.

The key is to listen to your body; only you can hear what it is telling you. Find somewhere you are comfortable and instructor who can modify movements for your needs; sometimes these honestly just take some trial and error. Go to class with a friend so you don’t feel so intimidated, and feel free to ask lots of questions. Just as I do in counseling someone for their nutritional needs, yoga practice can be tailored to that individuals’ needs as well. And also know—trust me—no one is looking at you; they’re all concerned with what they are doing. So really the first steps are to take a chance, take it slow, and get started.

Most everyone can benefit from more fruits, vegetables and yoga, let’s get started! Hope to see you see you soon. Namaste!

1. Accessed August 15, 2017
2. Bernardi L, Passino C, Spadacini G, BonWchi M, Arcaini L, Malcovati L,Bandinelli G, Schneider A, Keyl C, Feil P, Greene RE, Bernasconi C.Reduced hypoxic ventilatory response with preserved blood oxygenation in yoga trainees and Himalayan Buddhist monks at altitude: Evidence of a different adaptive strategy? European Journal of Applied Physiology 99:511–518, 2007.
3. Bhasin MK, Dusek JA, Chang B, Joseph MG, Denninger JW,
Fricchione GL, Benson H, Libermann TA. Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways.PLOS ONE Vol 8, issue 5, May 2013.
4. Streeter CC, Whitfield TH, Owen L, Rein T, Karri SK, Yakhkind A, Perlmutter R, Prescot A, Renshaw PF, Ciraulo DA, Jensen JE. Effects of yoga versus walking on mood, anxiety, and brain GABA levels: a randomized controlled MRS study, Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16:1145-52, 2010.
5. Villemure C, Ceko M, Cotton VA, Bushnell MC, Insular Cortex Mediates Increased Pain Tolerance in Yoga Practitioners,Cerebral Cortex (in press), 2013.
6. Tang Y,Ma Y, Wang J, Fan Y, Feng S, Lu Q, Yu Q, Sui D, Rothbart MK, Fan M, Posner MI. Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104:17152–17156, 2007.
7. Hartfiel N, Havenhand J, Khalsa SB, Clarke G, Krayer A.The effectiveness of yoga for the improvement of well-being and resilience to stress in the workplace. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health, 37:70-6, 2011.
8. Hartfiel N, Burton C, Rycroft-Malone J, Clarke G, Havenhand J, Khalsa SB, Edwards RT,  Yoga for reducing perceived stress and back pain at work.Occupational Medicine 62:606–612, 2012.
9. Mukherjee A, Banerjee S, Bandyopadhyay SK, Mukherjee PK, Studies on the interrelationship between insulin tolerance and yoga, Indian Journal of Physiology and Allied Sciences 46:110-115, 1992.
10. Sahay BK. Role of yoga in diabetes. Journal of the Association of Physicians of India, 55:121-6, 2007.
11. Bera TK, Gore MM, Kulkarni DD, Bhogal RS, Oak JP. Residential and non-residential Yoga training on health related physical fitness of obese patients.Yoga Mimamsa 34:166-187, 2003.
12. Gould KL, Ornish D, Scherwitz L, Brown S, Edens RP, Hess MJ, Mullani N, Bolomey L, Dobbs F, Armstrong WT, et al. Changes in myocardial perfusion abnormalities by positron emission tomography after long-term, intense risk factor modification, Journal of the American Medical Association, 274:894-901, 1995.
13. Moliver N, Mika E, Chartrand M, Burrus S, Haussmann R, Khalsa S. Increased Hatha yoga experience predicts lower body mass index and reduced medication use in women over 45Years. International Journal of Yoga, 4:77-86, 2011.
14. Copeland W, Shanahan L, Costello EJ, Angold A. Cumulative prevalence of psychiatric disorders by young adulthood: a prospective cohort analysis from the Great Smoky Mountains Study. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 50:252-61, 2011.

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