My name is Lisa Tsakos, Registered Holistic Nutritional Consultant, corporate speaker and author. This blog provides professional advice from a nutrition and weight loss expert (me!) about corporate and family health. Here you'll find recipes and articles that address work-related challenges like eating on-the-go and maximizing your productivity with the right foods. You'll also find out about how you can help your children develop strong immune systems and healthy bodies. As a nutrition instructor, I often found myself thinking, "When I have kids, this is how I will feed them." With two toddlers, I have the opportunity to practice what I have been preaching and to try out my theories. So far, they seem to be working! Follow me on my journey and also on Twitter @NuVitalityHW.

27 Mar 2014

Cooking dried beans

Beans are an excellent and inexpensive source of protein and substitute for animal protein. We love them, but they don’t always love us. If they aren’t prepared and cooked properly, they can cause gas, bloating and cramping.  
Beans are hard to digest for three reasons:
1. Oligosaccharides. Humans do not produce the enzyme, alpha-galactosidase, that is needed to properly break down this short carbohydrate chain. (By the way, the product Beano and some digestive enzymes are specifically designed to break down the oligosaccharides in beans.)
2. Beans also contain phytic acid, an ‘anti-nutrient’ which can block your body’s absorption of some minerals.
3. Beans contain a lot of fiber. A lot, as in 8 or 9 grams per half-cup serving. If your body isn’t accustomed to ingesting that much fiber in one meal, you will likely be ‘hearing’ from your lunch soon after eating it.
To counter these problems, some preparation and especially time are required to cook dried beans. 
Without question, canned beans are super-convenient and dried are… well, a labour of love. But they don’t have to be. Follow these easy steps for cooking – and more importantly, freezing beans – and you’ll have them stocked and ready to go for making dips, chili, casserole, soups, quesadillas, minestrone, salads and more!  
Time-Saver! Take a significant short-cut by soaking and pre-cooking at least 3 types of beans at the same time. Kidney beans, black beans and chick peas are my staples, and I like to have them on hand and meal-ready.
1.    Sort and discard any stones or discoloured beans. You don’t want to find any pebbles in your black bean soup!
2.    Rinse beans in cold water.
3.    Now you have 2 options:
a.    Soak beans in warm, salted water (about one teaspoon of salt for each pound of beans to keep the beans from hardening) for at least 48 hours. Change the water at least 3 times a day. Pour it down the drain – don’t try to re-use it in other recipes, and definitely don’t water your plants with it. It will kill them!
b.    Cook beans right away. If you skip the pre-soak step and go directly to cooking beans, wait until they’re cooked about half-way before adding salt. 

If you will not be using the beans for a meal right away, when they are about half-cooked, pull them off the stove, drain, cool and freeze in glass or plastic containers until they are needed.

To cook beans, place them into a large pot and cover with about 2 inches of water or stock. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer. Stir occasionally and add more liquid if needed. Cook until the beans are tender and easily mashed with a fork. The cooking time varies based on the type of bean. Use this chart as a reference:  
Dry measure 1 cup (250 ml)
Cooking Time
3 cups
45 minutes
3 cups
Black beans
3 cups
1.5 hours
3 cups
Chickpeas (Garbanzo)
4 cups
3 hours
2½ cups
Kidney or pinto beans
3 cups
2 hours
2 cups
Lentils, split peas
3 cups
35-45 minutes
2¼ cups
Navy beans
3 cups
2.5 hours
2 cups
4 cups
3.5 hours
3 cups

23 Mar 2014

Healthy snacks for kids

Kids l-o-v-e to snack. Especially my kids. They ask for snacks from morning to night. The other night, Olivia asked for a snack in the middle of dinner! So, I'm always on the lookout for new healthy products and ideas for great snacks to have on hand at home and for when we're out. 

Parents often ask me for healthy snack suggestions for their picky toddlers and children. They want to know what I buy, what's in my kitchen cupboards. Since co-writing Unjunk Your Junk Food with my pals, Andrea from Naturally Savvy and Randy from The Healthy Shopper, I do a lot of label reading at the grocery store and am surprised (shocked sometimes) by the artificial ingredients added to children's food and snacks, namely artificial colours. All those red, blue, green, yellow and pink candies, swirled yogurts, rainbow coloured ice cream - they're made from petroleum-derived dyes that have been linked to behavioural problems, allergic reactions, rashes and more. Even without their track record, they're chemicals, and chemicals are not welcome in our bodies.

Having struggled with my weight throughout my early years, it's important to me that my kids have a healthy relationship with food, mainly so that they can make choices based on how they feel rather than what tastes good. To that end, there are two words I absolutely refuse to use: treats and dessert. Kids should not view food of any kind (read: junk food) as a reward. The word 'treat' implies reward, and dessert follows a meal - a pattern I don't care to establish in our home. Plus, one of my tenets of healthy weight management is nothing sweet late in the day, and especially after dinner. If the kids ask for a cookie, they are welcome to it anytime before 5 p.m. Any later than that and they won't burn it off (plus, it's likely to delay their bedtime).

Snacking at home is easy. Outside the home - that's a whole other ballgame. At home the kids love to snack on these:
  • Fresh fruit - any (fresh berries, sliced or diced apple, pear, banana, cantaloupe, orange, watermelon, papaya, mango, etc.)
  • Hummus with raw or steamed baby carrots, cucumber rounds or other sliced veggies
  • Slices of pear or apple topped with SunButter*, almond butter or other nut butter
  • Organic Plain or Vanilla yogurt - plain or topped with berries
  • Organic Greek yogurt - plain or topped with berries
  • Cubed goat mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, cucumber rounds
  • Gluten-free crackers dipped in hummus, SunButter or nut butter  
  • Lightly steamed baby carrots.  
* SunButter is made with sunflower seeds and is nut-free.

Below are some of the on-the-go snacks I buy for my kids. Find a printable list here.

  •  ShaSha Co. Ginger Snaps - Spelt. These delicious cookies aren't gluten-free but they contain a different form of gliadin, the type of gluten found in wheat, rye and barley. If you have serious gluten-related health issues, avoid spelt.
  • Annie’s Gluten-Free Cocoa & Vanilla Bunny Cookies
  • Enjoy Life Snickerdoodles (Gluten-Free)
  • Homemade Banana-Coconut-Oatmeal Chocolate Chip cookies 
  • Kinnikinnick Chocolate KinniKritter Animal Cookies (gluten-free)
  • PC Organics Animal Cookies for Toddlers (not gluten-free)

Individually Packaged Snacks:
  • Happy Squeeze Twist (organic) or other strained organic fruit & veggie squeeze pouch
  • Nature’s Path Envirokidz bars (gluten-free) 
  • ShaSha Buckwheat Snacks (higher in protein than most other snacks)
  • Barbara’s Snackimals (cookies packaged for on-the-go)
  • Organic Applesauce (don't forget to pack a spoon!)
  • PC Organics Fruit Snacks (Strawberry Mango, Blueberry Pomegranate) - organic fruit leather
  • PC Organics Orange Mango Sweet Potato Naturally Flavoured Fruit and Vegetable Snack 
  • Jennie’s Coconut Macaroons - deliciously filling, gluten-free, and individually wrapped 

    • Mary's Gone Crackers, Organic Gluten-Free 
    • Nabisco Rice Thins, Unflavoured (gluten-free)
    • Lentil Chips from Mediterranean Snacks (boxed but also available in snack sized packs)

    Salty Snacks:
    • Beanitos Original (The Original Bean Snacks)
    • Snap Pea Crisps
    • Chia Crisps (Lesser Evil brand)
    • Neal Brothers Foods Extremely Tasty Tortillas (100% organic nacho chips)
    • Popcorn – Skinny Pop Popcorn or other GMO-free or organic popcorn
    • Plain organic potato chips  

    Juice Boxes:
    • Kiju Organic Orange-Mango
    • PC Organics Apple or White Grape Juice and water blend (blended with 50% water to reduce the sugar) 

    Candy & Chocolate:
    • YumEarth Organic Pops (the best tasting but most expensive lollipops you'll ever try)
    • YumEarth Organic Fruit Snacks
    • YumEarth Organic Gummy Bears
    • YumEarth Organic Sour Beans
    • Smarties (no artificial colours or flavours)
    • Dark chocolate (70%)

    My own hunt for healthy, tasty snacks - and especially snacks that are not all carbs - is ongoing, so if you have any great finds or suggestions, please comment below. I'll continue to add to this list, so check back soon for new ideas!

    Happy snacking! 

    For more information about healthy eating choices for kids, download the free e-book, Label Lessons: Unjunk Your Kids Lunch Box or check out the book, Unjunk Your Junk Food.

    7 Mar 2014

    Are cured meats and cold cuts safe to eat?

    Whenever the topic of eating cold cuts or cured meats comes up in my seminars, the audience leaves depressed. People love their bacon, but my news is not good. Cold cuts and processed meats are part of our lives. We spread them onto pizza, subs and sandwiches, but several studies have linked cured meats to chronic diseases including cancer. Are cured meats safe to eat and what's behind their relationship to illness?

    The Nitrite Debate Broils On 
    In 2010, the journal Circulation published a study that involved over 1 million people. The Harvard researchers found that:
    On average, each 50g serving of processed meat per day - the equivalent of a sausage or a couple of rashers of bacon - was associated with a 42% higher chance of developing coronary heart disease and a 19% higher risk of diabetes.   
    Then a 2013 study of half a million men and women in 10 countries found that high consumption of processed meat was associated with almost double the risk of death, compared with low consumption.

    Consumers and health experts often blame nitrites for the health problems linked to cured meat consumption. Nitrites are considered a dangerous food additive and the main reason many people avoid cured meats. As a result, a number of ‘preservative-free’ cold cuts have emerged, but are these products truly what they seem to be, and are nitrites as dangerous as we have been led to believe?

    Cured meat, as well as any unfrozen food item that isn’t a “whole muscle”, and meat products containing poultry or pork are required by law to include a preservative. Sodium nitrite (sometimes called sodium nitrate or sodium salt) is the additive the food industry prefers to use.

    By definition, a “cured” meat has had the preservative nitrate or nitrite combined with salt added to it. The nitrite controversy lies in the fact that it isn’t just found in cold cuts; in fact, for occasional cold cut eaters, only 5 percent of nitrite intake is from cured meats. Nitrites and nitrates are naturally occurring chemical compounds made of nitrogen, an important component of air, water, and soil and essential for plant growth. In other words, soil is full of nitrates, and any plants that grow from the ground draw it from the soil. Nitrates, which convert to nitrites in the body, are naturally occurring in water and particularly high in beets, celery, lettuce, radishes, and spinach. About 85 percent of the nitrites in our diet come from vegetables and other natural and healthy foods, including spinach and other leafy greens, beets, corn, fish, dairy products, and cereals.

    There are two reasons nitrite is added to processed meats: Firstly, it inhibits the development of Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium which causes botulism. You don't want to mess with botulism. It is a serious paralytic illness that can lead to respiratory failure. Unlike most microbes, the botulism bacteria requires an oxygen-free environment to live, so it can contaminate canned or vacuum-packed foods, garlic stored in oil and improperly cured meats.

    Secondly, nitrite is responsible for the pink or red colour that gives cured meats the impression that the meat is ‘fresh’ as well as the characteristic flavour of cold cuts. Now that's just gross. 

    Pick Your Poison: Botulism or Nitrosamines?
    Consumer concern about nitrites in cured meats is a result of several studies that have linked cold cuts to cancer, in particular, colorectal cancer. Nitrites have mostly been accused, but results of various studies have been inconsistent, with some showing a strong correlation between the intake of cured meats and cancer as well as a host of other chronic diseases, and others finding no link at all. 

    Here is what we do know: Under certain conditions, nitrites can produce carcinogenic chemical compounds called nitrosamines. Those conditions include strong acidity – as in stomach acid, or cooking with high temperatures, for example, frying. Bacon has been the biggest target as it almost always contains nitrosamines and is cooked at a high temperature.
    Cured meats cooked at high temperatures:
    • bacon
    • cured meats on pizza (pepperoni, salami, ham, bacon, sausage)
    • hot dogs
    • sausages
    • grilled sandwiches and subs (Quizno's, Subway, Mr. Sub)
    • fried bologna sandwich 
    Not all processed meats produce nitrosamines, however, yet there still appears to be a link between cold cuts and cancer and research is looking at the high amounts of sodium and saturated fat found in these foods as other potential causes.  

    The package reads: No Preservatives Added... beyond those naturally occurring.
    Synthetic vs. Natural Nitrites
    Many food manufacturers have created new product lines featuring cold cuts and cured meats that are free of the chemical form of nitrite but instead use cultured celery powder, a natural alternative to nitrites. Lately, some have been criticized for labelling their meats ‘preservative-free’ or claiming ‘no added nitrates’ when, in fact, cultured celery powder contains preformed nitrites. Did you catch that?

    Don't be deceived! Even 'natural' cold cuts contain nitrites

    There are some differences between synthetic and more natural forms of nitrite. Synthetic curing salt is dyed pink to differentiate it from table salt and to help it blend better with meat. Also, the amount of nitrite in a food is more difficult to control when using the natural forms of the preservative. The maximum allowable amount of (synthetic) sodium nitrite added to food is 20 grams per 100 kilograms (or 200 ppm) or less, depending on the type of meat product. Mixing celery salts with a starter (a bacterial culture) to form nitrite is a difficult process to control; hence, a food preserved with cultured celery powder may contain even more nitrites than conventional meat products in which the amount of added nitrites is measured. 

    These labelling terms represent nitrites:
    Cultured celery salt
    Curing salts
    Sodium salt
    Sodium nitrite
    Sodium nitrate
    Potassium nitrite
    Potassium nitrate

    While the jury on the dangers of nitrites is still out, there are ways to protect your health and ‘have your bacon and eat it too,’ so to speak. The antioxidants ascorbic acid, commonly known as vitamin C, as well as vitamin E have been proven to inhibit the conversion of sodium nitrite to nitrosamines.
    • If you choose to eat cold cuts or bacon, protect yourself by taking 500 to 1,000 mg of vitamin C and 200 IU of vitamin E before your meal. 
    • Limit your intake of all processed meats – aside from nitrites, the average amount of sodium per serving (three slices) is 900 mg, not far off from the upper daily limit. 
    • Steer clear of cured meats with a long shelf life (an indication that a higher amount of nitrite has been added) and meat products cured with synthetic nitrites. 
    • Bacon should be considered a rare treat.
    • Avoid cooking meats at high temperatures, and especially avoid fried meats.
    All that said, I still love a good turkey sandwich now and again...


    Battle of the drink boxes

    Before having kids, I felt strongly that packaged juice should not be a part of a child's diet, unless it was fresh-pressed and diluted with water. But then came the kids and the dilemma: How do I get omega-3 oil into their little bodies?  

    Thank goodness I discovered Kiju Organic Mango Orange. I buy the large cartons and dilute 1/2 cup juice in a cup with water and 1 tbsp. mango flavoured fish oil, and they happily drink it without hesitation. It's made a tremendous difference to their health, and especially to Ben's dry skin. 

    In last month's issue of Tonic Toronto we compared Kiju Mango Orange with a horrible alternative, Kool-Aid Jammers. Here's the column:


    5 Mar 2014

    Gentle exfoliating scrub made with coconut oil recipe

    Mother Nature is being really mean this year. 

    In my entire lifetime, I don't recall this many days with temperatures lingering around -17ºC/1.4ºF.

    Typically, these temps would have my skin burning from dryness. But this year, I've been taking precautions with a heavy-duty moisturizer and gently exfoliating with a rich, nourishing coconut oil scrub about 3 times a week. I'd love to use it daily, but since each skin cell only reproduces about 11 times during your entire lifetime, I don't think it's a good idea to scrub away skin cells too often. 

    You can use it morning or evening. I like to use it in the morning before applying moisturizers and make-up. It leaves my face and neck with a beautiful glow (even after a tough night with the kids) and softens hands too - a luxury in the winter!

    Coconut oil is a wonderful all-purpose moisturizer with anti-inflammatory properties (bye bye blemishes), and sea salt comes packaged with almost 70 minerals and trace minerals that nourish your skin.

    It's super easy to make and since a little goes a long way, the amount prepared from this recipe will last at least a couple of months (if you use it about 3 times a week).

    1 heaping teaspoon finely ground sea salt
    1/2 cup organic coconut oil (virgin or extra-virgin), softened at room temperature
    a few drops lavender oil (optional) 

    In a small bowl, mix the sea salt together with the coconut oil. Add a few drops of lavender. Place in a tightly sealed container and store at room temperature.  

    Put some into a pretty jar and give it to your friends for birthdays and holidays. They'll love it!

    3 Mar 2014

    Corporate Nutrition Seminars by Lisa Tsakos & Nu-Vitality

    Now is the perfect time to remind your employees that even small improvements in one's diet can have a huge impact on energy, productivity, mental health and of course, on overall health. 

    If you don't know where to begin, contact me to discuss the specific needs of your employees. We will work together to find the best solutions for your team.

    Corporate Seminars by Lisa Tsakos, RHN

    All topics are one-hour PowerPoint presentations but may be extended to half-day or full-day programs. Detailed handouts summarizing key points are distributed at each seminar. Customized topics may be requested. 

    For more information: 
    Email: Lisa Tsakos
    Telephone: (902) 448-2500
    Website: www.Nu-Vitality.com


    It is said that you are what you eat, but more accurately, you are what you digest. When digestion is impaired, the human body becomes less capable of absorbing essential nutrients. Moreover, for those who suffer from digestive disorders, such as acid reflux or IBS, each meal is a cause for concern. This session takes you on a tour of the digestive system, teaching you how to optimize each step of the process and discussing natural remedies for common digestive disorders along the way.
    Long haul truck drivers, police officers, construction workers and couriers know first hand that being on the job for long stretches of time is an obstacle to good health. With a little knowledge and creativity, nutritious meals that will keep employees healthy and alert at work can be prepared with minimal effort.
    Research shows that probiotics can have a tremendous impact on your disposition since the ‘good bacteria’ in the gut are just as responsible for producing brain chemicals (like serotonin, the ‘good mood’ neurotransmitter) as your brain is! Learn more about this and the role of many more foods and nutrients scientifically proven to improve mood and attitude in this fascinating 1-hour session.

    So, you know your numbers… now what? This workshop is intended as a follow-up to biometric screening. Once participants have received their data, many organizations end their support there. Employees don't know where to turn for advice or help. This seminar provides practical advice on how to mitigate the risk factors associated with metabolic syndrome, a high BMI, high blood sugar levels, hypertension, heart disease biomarkers and discusses the role of exercise in all of the above.


    Weight management is daunting for many, but it doesn’t have to be. Many who are striving to achieve their perfect weight are following advice or weight loss fads that don’t work for their body type. Based on techniques used by the top weight loss experts around the world, this presentation teaches the most effective strategies for reducing weight safely, quickly and permanently in just one hour! A menu plan and eating schedule are provided to participants. (This seminar may also be promoted as “The Ultimate Weight Wellness Plan”)

    OTHER TOPICS (for descriptions of these topics, please visit www.Nu-Vitality.com)

    For additional details, visit www.Nu-Vitality.com.

    Lisa Tsakos, RHN is a nationally-recognized nutritionist and educator specializing in weight management and corporate nutrition programs. 

    She has been featured on television and radio programs across Canada and the U.S., including Wylde on Health, The Better Show and the Discovery Channel and is a contributor to various websites, including NaturallySavvy.com and The Huffington Post Canada (blog). Her articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers around the world. 

    Additionally, she authored two books before co-writing Unjunk Your Junk Food: Healthy Alternatives to Conventional Snacks (Simon & Schuster) and the Label Lessons e-book series.