Nutrition & Physical Activity

Share this

Shiitake mushrooms — Carcinogenic?

Dear Reader,

Before you say “Oh Shiitake!,” cultivated (rather than wild), cooked mushrooms are generally a healthy addition to your diet. As far as your concern over cancer-causing agents in mushrooms, some studies found that synthetic and chemically modified compounds, which included agaritine — a mycotoxin found in fresh mushrooms, produced carcinogenic effects in mice. However, in a follow-up study, the same effects could not be replicated and the methodology used in these studies has come under question. And while many mushrooms, including shiitake, are typically safe for consumption, there are a few causes for caution when it comes to eating fungi.

Mushrooms, including shiitake, have many health benefits. Of those, shiitake mushrooms can boast about:

  • containing soluble and insoluble fiber
  • being a good source of B1, B2, B12, C, D, and E vitamins

Though more research is needed, these particular mushrooms have demonstrated antioxidant, antimicrobial, and antiviral properties. They have also been found, in some studies, to support the immune system in protecting against the spread of cancer.

Shiitake are not the only mushrooms that are considered beneficial. While, again, more studies are needed, findings from current research examining benefits across several varieties suggest that mushrooms may contribute to health in the following ways:

  • by providing some protection against b-amyloid peptide toxicity in the brain and mild cognitive impairment, which are both precursors to dementia – (though so far, only detected in studies with mice)
  • by reducing breast cancer risk — in a Korean study investigating breast cancer in women
  • by supporting weight management — particularly when substituting mushrooms for meat in the diet
  • by promoting oral health — found in a study where a mouthwash with shiitake extract was used to combat plaque buildup

While these preliminary findings are very promising, there are two points of caution when it comes to eating mushrooms. The first is that some mushrooms found in the wild — such as death cap, panther cap, and liberty cap — can be extremely poisonous! Short of having a mycologist or mushroom expert on hand to verify that a mushroom collected in the wild is safe, the recommendation is to refrain from eating any wild mushrooms. Secondly, eating raw or undercooked shiitake mushrooms can sometimes cause a condition called shiitake dermatitis, which manifests itself in the form of a rash lasting about one to three weeks. Cooking the nutritious shiitake mushrooms before eating them can minimize the risk of illness while still providing the health benefits found in the mushrooms.

If you have other nutrition questions, you may consider checking out the Go Ask Alice! Nutrition & Physical Activity archive. In the meantime, continue having fun cooking with fungi!


Gluten-free cheese?

Dear Maybe a cheesy question,

Your question isn’t cheesy at all: in fact, it's a great topic to ‘whey’ in on (pun definitely intended). It brings up some good points to keep in mind for those who are on gluten-free diets. And, you are correct: unless cheese is processed with gluten-derived food additives or cross-contaminated by a gluten-containing product, all cheese is naturally gluten-free! More generally, dairy products are a good food source of calcium and protein for those who need to avoid gluten in her/his diet.

You may be wondering why someone would need to know if a product is gluten-free. Let’s start with the basics: Gluten (the proteins that occur in grains like wheat, rye, and barley), are found commonly in breads, pasta, cakes, cereals, baked goods, and other products made from these grains. People with chronic diseases such as celiac disease may have an autoimmune response to these proteins; other people might choose to forgo gluten because reducing gluten has been linked with weight loss or weight maintenance.

Becoming gluten-free isn’t as simple as removing the bun from a hamburger. Gluten is found in more than just breads: products such as soy sauce, food additives like modified food starches and malt flavorings, and even vitamins that use gluten as a binding agent can all contain gluten. Some people with celiac disease are so sensitive to gluten that if you sliced regular bread with a knife and then use that same knife to cut a piece of gluten-free bread (thereby cross-contaminating it) it could trigger an immune response. So, knowing if something is gluten-free could be crucial for those folks. Because of this, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a standard defining the terms “no gluten,” “free of gluten,” “without gluten,” and “gluten-free.” In order to bear this label, the food product must have a gluten limit of less than 20 parts per million (ppm). If you’re avoiding gluten, try to keep an eye out for these terms and labels on the foods you buy.

Is it possible that, as you suggest, the move to label the gorgonzola cheese as “gluten-free” is a marketing ploy? Maybe. On the other hand, for those with celiac disease or a high sensitivity to gluten, knowing that a cheese has not been cross-contaminated by gluten or processed using gluten-derived additives may mean it makes the cut (Get it? Cut the cheese? Is this mic on?).

Whether you’re gluten-free or not, sometimes being cheesy is a good thing!


What is the keto diet?

Dear Reader,

Just like fashion fads on the runway, fitness and diet fads will come and go. It’s smart to ask questions about any diet plan or exercise regimen to help separate fact from fiction, so kudos to you for seeking out additional information! Originally, ketogenic nutrition strategies were developed for treatment of seizure disorders in children and adolescents. The use of the “keto diet” (originally known as the ketogenic diet) as a weight loss strategy is relatively recent. And as far as shedding pounds is concerned, the keto diet seems to be most effective in the short-term, especially when combined with exercise. However, this diet is also associated some health risks — so it’s good to explore the benefits and potential drawbacks in tandem.

Your initial conclusions about the keto diet are correct — the structure is based on an extremely low-carbohydrate, high-fat, and high-protein ratio of calorie sources. The keto diet plan follows a strict regimen of high fat, high protein, low carbohydrate food sources. Your body, in response to obtaining calories primarily from fat and protein, works to break down fatty acids for fuel. In contrast, a diet high in carbohydrates primarily relies on glucose (sugar) for energy. Maintaining adequate blood sugar levels, or levels of glucose in the blood stream, help ensure your brain has enough fuel to work normally. When glucose is not readily available, your brain can use ketones for energy. The process of burning fatty acids for energy is called beta-oxidation, and produces a byproduct — the ketone molecule. The keto diet is based off of this switch from glucose fuel to ketone fuel. When your body is burning primarily fat, and not glucose, ketones are produced in excess.

As far as an effective weight loss strategy, the keto diet typically has the most dramatic results within the first four to six weeks due to the dramatic changes in eating habits. Current scientific research on the keto diet shows that those using this plan specifically for weight loss may experience moderate or significant weight loss in the beginning weeks, followed by less dramatic results in subsequent months. According to some reports, individuals who follow a keto diet for eight to twelve weeks may see an additional reduction in body fat. Of the literature available, most sources advise using the keto diet under the supervision of a health care professional because of the restrictive nature and potential side effects.

Additionally, some people find these types of diets challenging to maintain long term because of how strict the rules are around what you can and cannot eat. Depending on where you read about the keto diet as a weight loss tool, you’re likely to hear varying reports of effectiveness. While initially successful with weight loss goals, over time issues like depleted energy, food cravings, and other side effects may hinder continued ability to adhere to the diet. Given the specific guidelines of the keto diet, it may be harder to get a diversity of important vitamins and nutrients from food. Many health care professionals advise incorporating a multivitamin into your diet. Dehydration, constipation, and development of kidney stones are also possible side effects of the keto diet. Some initial research on long-term use of the keto regimen shows potential risks of developing insulin resistance and developing diabetes. Use of the keto diet may also lead to elevated cholesterol or unhealthy amounts of fat in the liver. And if the ketones build up in your body quickly and you can’t excrete them through the urine fast enough, you can drastically alter your blood pH, which can be fatal.

You also asked about results due to the combination of the keto diet and exercise. Historically, there have been mixed conclusions in research studies about whether combining the ketogenic diet with exercise provides faster weight loss results or impacts athletic performance. The most recent studies seem to imply that keto plus exercise may cause the body to burn fat for energy without negatively affecting athletic potential. That said, some study participants did show elevated blood fat levels, which could increase cardiovascular disease risks.

Want to figure out if the ketogenic plan is right for you? It might be best to consult a health care provider to avoid any potential health consequences and also to tailor the program to your needs. If your goals are weight loss, there are many ways to achieve sustainable, healthy results. You may want to browse the Go Ask Alice! weight loss or fitness archives for some additional ideas.


For more information, check out these recommended resources:

Medical Services (Morningside)

Student Health Services (CUMC)

How to choose/use exercise DVDs

Dear Reader,

When it comes to workout DVDs, not all are created equal. What works for a friend may not work for you, and vice versa, which is why you should try to do as much research as you can before you press play. Also, keep in mind that it may take a few attempts or selections to figure out which one is the best fit for you. 

Choosing a workout DVD can be tough because once you tear off that cellophane packaging, there’s usually little chance of being able to return it. So how do you make an informed decision? Here are a few tips that might help you in your quest:

  • Don’t believe the gimmicks. A workout DVD that advertises itself as a quick fix for muscle toning and weight loss is often misleading. Everyone’s body is different, so not everyone will achieve the same results. As you mentioned, you are trying to be more active and challenge yourself so visible physical changes aren’t necessarily indicative of achieving your end goal.
  • Credentials matter. Since there aren’t standard guidelines that dictate who can be featured on a workout DVD, consider who might be most qualified to give advice about fitness. A fit looking celebrity might not have much expertise in health and fitness. It’s a good idea to look for workout DVDs that feature an instructor who is accredited by a national agency like the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
  • Preview DVDs. Borrow DVDS from a friend, the library, or rent one to test it out for yourself. You might also find that full workout videos are posted online for free or for an affordable price. Reading user reviews online might also be helpful, but keep in mind that everyone has a different opinion on what works.
  • Take it slow. Since you’re new to the workout DVD world, look for those that offer beginner workouts. It may prove helpful to watch the entire video before jumping into your workout. That way, you can get used to the format and intensity before you get started. Get prepared! Do you have the space for the workout? Do you need to purchase any equipment?
  • Listen to your body. Is the instructor going too fast for you? Do you need a water break? You can do the exercises at your own pace by taking advantage of that pause button!

Don’t forget, the best workouts are ones that keep you fit and are also enjoyable. There’s more than one way to get in shape and many different exercises work the same muscles. Let’s say you detest lifting weights, you might find that a yoga DVD provides the same benefits as a weight lifting DVD. So don’t be afraid to try new techniques!

Before you begin any type of new exercise routine it’s always a good idea to consult a medical professional. If you’re a Columbia student, you can make an appointment at Medical Services (Morningside campus) or the Student Health Service (CUMC campus). You can also check out Columbia’s physical activity program, CU Move, for general tips on how to stay active and improve your fitness.

Good luck finding the right DVD for you!



Frozen yogurt freezes good bacteria too?

Dear Reader,

You’ll be happy to know that enjoying frozen yogurt is delicious AND may contain some “healthy” bacteria! While the research is not entirely conclusive, it seems that the active cultures you’re referring to (a.k.a. probiotics) do have the ability to survive the frozen treat’s freezing process.

However, not all frozen yogurts are created equal. So, how will you know which ones contain probiotics? Making these considerations will help you determine the probiotic content of your frozen yogurt:

  • Look for the Live & Active Cultures seal. This voluntary labeling program was created by the National Yogurt Association to certify that products contain live active cultures. However, be aware that while regular yogurt needs to have 100 million cultures per gram to get this seal, frozen yogurt needs just one-tenth this amount.
  • Check the ingredients. Are probiotics listed in the ingredients? A few common probiotic bacteria are species of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, including Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium longum. Check to see if any of these are listed on the product.
  • Contact the manufacturer or store manager. If you find a frozen yogurt that piques your taste buds, but doesn’t have the seal or its probiotic content isn't displayed on the list of ingredients, it doesn’t necessarily mean it's without live active cultures. Try reaching out to the manufacturer to ask how much and what types of bacteria are in their product.
  • Consider the varieties and add-ins. Frozen yogurt’s probiotic content depends on the kind of yogurt it was made from, the manufacturing techniques used to process it, the other ingredients added, and the strains of probiotics included. And while it’s great that frozen yogurt may contain good bacteria, remember that extra sugar, add-ins, and toppings like sugary cereal, sprinkles, and chocolate chips or candy mean added calories to your treat.

Overall, regular yogurt beats out frozen yogurt when it comes to nutrient and probiotic content. Regular (not frozen) yogurt is a great source of many nutrients, including calcium, vitamins B and D, magnesium, potassium, and protein — in addition to natural and added live active cultures. While some varieties of frozen yogurt may contain probiotics, many just don’t measure up to regular yogurt’s nutrient and vitamin content. That said, it’s still a good option for a lower-calorie treat. And by being an informed and vigilant shopper, you’ll be able to identify which frozen yogurt will give the most bang for your buck, or rather bacteria per bite.



Healthy regional diets?

Dear Reader,

Delicious and nutritious foods can be found all over the world! Adopting a diet similar to that of another region could positively impact your health and add some variety to what you eat. Ultimately, it’s important to pick a diet that’s right for you and for your lifestyle.

Studying regional diets can (and should!) certainly impact what we decide to put on our plates. Some of the healthiest diets around the world tend to feature lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fewer servings of dairy, red meat, and poultry. They also limit unhealthy fats and instead include healthier ones. You might want to consider what types of foods you have available because not everything that is available in another country will be readily available where you are.

You specifically mentioned the Mediterranean and Japanese diets. The staples of the Mediterranean diet — which have been associated with a lowered risk of heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease — are fruits, veggies, legumes, and nuts. Cooks also use olive oil instead of butter, limit the use of red meat, and incorporate fish several times a week. The Japanese diet has been linked to long lifespans and lowered risk of heart disease, but also hypertension (high blood pressure). Foods commonly found in the Japanese diet include eating a lot of omega-3-rich fish and protein-dense soy, drinking green tea, and limiting intake of sugar and white flour. Finding fresh olive oil or fresh fish might not be as easy, or inexpensive, for you as it is for someone living on the Mediterranean coast or in Tokyo, but you do not need to eat these all the time. Fresh fruits, veggies, beans and nuts might be easier to come by depending on where you live.   

Overall, the ideal diet for you depends on a lot of things, such as your genetic makeup, hormonal profile, culture, and food preferences. The USDA Ethnic/Cultural Food Pyramids display recommendations for healthy eating from many different countries. Reviewing these may help you find food choices that work for you. You may also want to check out the get balanced! Guide for Healthier Eating to look at other healthy food options. Foods that are easily accessible and your level of physical activity are also factors to consider when choosing what to eat. Talking to a health professional may also be helpful — if you’re a Columbia student, you can make an appointment to speak with a registered dietitian or a health care provider at Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).

Here’s to eating well wherever you are!


Nutrition of freeze-dried vs. raw fruits and vegetables

Dear Reader,

Ever try freeze-dried ice cream in a pouch designed for astronauts? Well, freeze-dried foods are no longer just for space travel! They are now available to anyone who enjoys snacking on the go and there are a lot more options than just ice cream.   

The main difference between freeze-dried foods and fresh foods is water. Freeze-drying is a process that preserves food by removing 98 percent of its water content. This prevents food from spoiling, while still maintaining most of its flavor, color, texture, and nutritional value. Some freeze-dried food can last for several years! Just remember that if you’re eating a lot of freeze-dried foods, you want to stay extra hydrated to make up for their lack of water. Also keep in mind that the freeze-drying process involves chemical treatments. While most of the chemicals used in these processes are FDA approved and regulated, it is good to be aware that some chemicals may have adverse health effects, particularly for those who have a sulfite sensitivity. So, the question is, are freeze-dried fruits and veggies good for you?

Research has shown that while freeze-dried fruits and vegetables contain slightly lower amounts of certain vitamins, they are rich in antioxidants and fiber. Most researchers agree that the amount of nutrients lost from freeze-drying is miniscule.

What about calories? Because freeze-dried fruits and vegetables lack water, they are highly concentrated, which means they contain more calories than their original form. Confused? Think about it like this — if one cup of a particular fresh fruit is 100 calories, when you freeze dry that same amount of fruit it will shrink in size. So, one cup of freeze-dried fruit will contain more pieces of fruit than one cup of fresh fruit. This translates to more calories. This is why nutrition experts recommend that freeze-dried foods might be added as a supplement to someone’s diet, but should not act as a replacement for fresh foods.

In any form, fruits and vegetables provide you with vitamins and nutrients that are essential to your health. Whether you choose fresh or freeze-dried, it’s a good idea to include plenty of fruits and vegetables in your daily diet. The recommended number of servings varies from person to person, but general guidelines suggest between two and six servings daily. You can calculate your recommended daily intake on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

For more resources on how to keep up a healthy diet, check out Columbia’s get balanced! Guide for Healthier Eating and other Alice! Health Promotion nutrition initiatives. Both provide useful tips on how to stay healthy, all of which are easy to incorporate into your everyday life.


Enough nutrients on a gluten free diet?

Dear Reader,

Eating gluten-free certainly warrants paying attention to what you are excluding and how that may impact your health. Good for you for thinking carefully about your diet and asking questions. As someone with celiac disease, it's even more important to learn about how your food choices may impact the amount of certain vitamins and nutrients in your meals.

Let’s start with some basic facts about gluten-free diets. While eating a gluten-free diet is advised for those with celiac disease, it is not a quick fix, and it is not a flawless nutritional regimen.

  • The pros? Removing gluten will reduce inflammation and hopefully reduce damage to the intestines caused by celiac disease. Initiating and maintaining a gluten-free diet is universally recommended as a lifelong treatment for those with celiac disease.
  • The cons? Gluten-free diets/foods may be low in certain nutrients (like B vitamins, calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc, magnesium, and fiber). Many gluten-free packaged foods may also be higher in fat and cholesterol.

One way, and perhaps the preferred option, for increasing your intake of vitamins is through food. Some food sources of B-vitamins, calcium, fiber, folate, iron, magnesium, vitamin D, and zinc are:

  • Fruits — apples, berries, figs, oranges, pears, plums, prunes
  • Legumes — lentils, split peas, beans (black, garbanzo, kidney, lima, pinto)
  • Meats, fish, and eggs — all kinds!
  • Nuts and seeds — almonds, chia seeds, flax seeds, pecans, pistachios, sunflower seeds
  • Vegetables — artichokes, broccoli, green leafy vegetables (chard, collards, kale, spinach, etc.), squash
  • Whole grains — amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice, teff, millet  

Vitamin D is exceptionally hard to find in a wide variety of foods. The foods with the highest levels of vitamin D per serving are cod liver oil, swordfish, salmon, and tuna. Vitamin D is also produced in our bodies when we exposed to sun. For this reason, many people in northern climates have lower levels and may take supplements. You may want to talk with your health care provider to determine whether taking vitamin D supplements in addition to food sources is right for you.

Maintaining a healthy diet is important for everyone — and especially for those with celiac disease. Some good tips to get the most benefits from your food are:

  • Opt for fresh produce, whenever possible. Fresh vegetables and fruits will have the highest levels of vitamins. Also try to eat foods that are grown local and in season. If you can’t always eat fresh, frozen is second best.
  • Don’t overcook vegetables. Cooking vegetables too long will detract from their nutritional value. Using various cooking methods like sautéing, steaming, blanching, or even baking your veggies will reduce the amount of vitamins and minerals lost so your veggies will still pack a nutritious punch!
  • Aim for “whole” foods. The fewer ingredients in your food, the better. One way of doing this is to avoid processed and packaged goods. Processed foods will have higher levels of unhealthy fats, sodium, and sugars.
  • Eat the rainbow! A diet that includes a variety of colors (like those found in fruits and vegetables) is indicative of different vitamins. Keeping your plate or bowl colorful will ensure you’re eating a wide range of nutrients.

Before beginning a new nutritional program or diet, consider talking with your health care provider about the pros and cons and whether it is right for you. Additionally, a registered dietitian can give you in-depth information about the benefits and risks of excluding and including specific foods or supplements. If you are a Columbia student, you can make an appointment to speak with a registered dietitian or a health care provider by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC). Checking out the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics' celiac disease page may also help you get ideas on what to look for at the grocery, how to decipher what is gluten-free, and links to other helpful websites.

Here’s to noshing for nutrients!


Working out while getting over a cold?

Dear Reader,

Regular exercise is good for the body and mind — and can also boost your immune system! But what to do when germs already have you down? Here are a couple rules of thumb:

Are your symptoms above or below the neck?

  • “Above the neck”— if you have symptoms like a runny nose, watery eyes, a mild sore throat, or other symptoms of a mild cold, it is generally ok to exercise. Listen to your body — if you feel up to a light work out, go for it.
  • “Below the neck”— if you have symptoms like chest congestion or tightness, muscle aches, cough, or nausea, hold off. Exercise may do more harm than good, no matter how exercise-ready you feel. Monitor these symptoms closely, get plenty of rest, hydration, and if you’re not starting to feel better, set an appointment with you health care provider.

If you have “above the neck” symptoms, and want to get in a light workout, some of your best options are walking, jogging, qi gong, yoga, or other low-intensity activities. In general, try to exercise at a lower intensity than your normal routine — less weight and more reps, jog or cycle at a slower pace, etc.

Try to avoid gyms or group settings, where you may be exposed to more germs and spread the germs you are carrying to others. As an alternative, try to workout at home with body weight exercises or personal equipment.

Here are some additional ways to keep yourself healthy when you work out:

  • Drink up! Hydration is key when you are sweating. If you become dehydrated your mucous membranes also dry up and are more susceptible to infection.
  • Re-Fuel! Exercise will burn up calories faster than normal — and calories are your primary source of energy. Eat a healthy post-workout snack with both carbohydrates and protein to make sure your body can continue to work efficiently, even after your sweat session is over.
  • Get your R&R! Rest and recovery is just as important as your regular workout. Balance training days with regular rest days so your body can recover from tough workouts and perform at its peak.
  • Get out of those sweaty gym clothes! Sweating helps your body regulate temperature — as you heat up from exercise, sweat cools you down. But staying in cool, damp clothing post-workout is not ideal. Ditch the sweaty spandex and opt for drier, warmer options.
  • Wash your hands! The signs in the bathroom are not just for employees — everyone benefits from hand washing. Even at the gym. Sharing weights, mats, and even using the water fountain are all ways you can spread germs and pick up germs. Do yourself and your gym-mates a favor and wash your hands thoroughly and frequently.

If you are feeling under the weather, keep track of your symptoms and exercise in moderation. If you notice increased congestion, coughing or wheezing, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with a health care provider. If you’re a Columbia student on the Morningside campus, you can use Open Communicator to schedule a visit with Columbia Health Medical Services. If you are on the Medical Center campus, contact the Student Health Service for an appointment. More serious symptoms include chest tightness or pressure, trouble breathing, dizziness, or difficulty with balance. If you experience any of these symptoms, stop exercise and seek emergency medical attention right away.

Hope this helps!


Drinking wine without breaking the bank (or your belt)

Dear Reader,

Although wine snobs may claim they can taste the difference between cheap and expensive wines, the truth is that delicious wines can be purchased at a wide range of prices. Many different factors, such as land price, farming practices, the fermentation and aging processes, and even the brand name can affect how much wine costs — but none of these are directly related to adding sugar.

Sugar serves several purposes in the complex process of winemaking. First, sugar is what yeast metabolizes into alcohol to make wine alcoholic. The riper grapes are, the higher sugar content they have, and the more alcohol the wine will eventually contain. If grapes are less ripe, sugar may be added before fermentation so the final product will be more alcoholic. In dry wines, all the sugar is allowed to ferment into alcohol, whereas sweet wines have more residual sugar. Sugar can also be added after the fermentation process to change the sweetness level of the wine. In some cases, risking losing the grape crop by letting the fruit ripen for longer on the vine or complicating the process by using sugar for flavor or a secondary fermentation may increase the price of wine.

However, what determines the calorie level of your wine is not how much it costs, but a combination of its sugar content and, most importantly, the amount of alcohol in it. A six ounce-serving of wine can contain anywhere from around 107 to 275 calories depending on whether it is red or white, dry or sweet, and light or heavy alcohol. As alcohol contains close to twice as many carbs as sugar, heavier wines tend to be more caloric. If you’re looking for the wine with the smallest effect on your waistline, you’re best off choosing a light, dry white wine. Since you said you prefer red, however, try looking for a light, dry wine such as a Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Syrah — not only do these wines tend to have fewer calories, but they also contain different minerals and antioxidants which, when consumed in moderation, may be beneficial for heart health.



Syndicate content