Optimal Nutrition

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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!


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!


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!


Food aversions and nutrition

Dear Reader,

Being a picky eater is one thing, but having such strong aversions to certain foods that you gag violently is quite another. You’re right to associate symptoms such as ongoing lethargy with an unbalanced diet, and it sounds as though the difficulties you experience when trying to eat certain foods may be preventing you from meeting your most essential nutritional needs, including calories for energy. Good news — studies show that treatment for individuals who experience similar aversions to a wide variety of foods is highly effective, so keep at it!

Parents and babysitters will attest to the fact that picky eating is very common among children and adolescents. However, highly selective eating behaviors that begin in or last through adulthood are much less prevalent. Fortunately, treatment works; in a study with individuals whose diets were composed of six foods or less, phasing new foods into the diet with an emphasis on trying new foods, not eating large quantities of them, was effective. All study participants who accepted treatment were able to incrementally diversify their diet.

One of the principal consequences of eating an unbalanced diet low in nutrients is becoming underweight. Being underweight may cause a variety of short- and long-term health consequences, including fatigue (as you mention), weakened immune system, fragile bones and osteoporosis, anemia, and for women, interrupted periods and fertility issues. One of the best ways to prevent becoming underweight is to maintain a healthy diet. For a thorough summary of what a balanced diet looks like, check out the get balanced! Guide for Healthier Eating. Looking over the Guide will help you set goals and give you ideas about new foods you may be willing to try, such as delicious and nutritious fruits and vegetables. While maximized for students at Columbia, the key ideas in the guide can work for anyone and there are additional resources listed.

Seems like your current diet is high in carbohydrates, which may give you a short blast of energy but fade away rather quickly. Have you considered trying other foods of various textures that can help sustain your energy, such as fruit smoothies, nuts, yogurt, and berries? Alternatively, consider recombining ingredients in your existing diet — for example, you might try putting some cheese with tomato sauce on your pasta (almost the same as pizza). Experimentation within the range of your “safe foods” list may help you become more open to trying new foods. Once you’re ready to try new foods, take small tastes and evaluate what you like and don’t like about the food. You won’t necessarily like every new food you try, and that’s okay — it’s all about being open to experimentation.

In addition to simply disliking the texture of certain foods, there may be emotional factors that are preventing you from eating a well-balanced diet. In fact, clinical trials show that gagging, vomiting, and retching when exposed to a new food is often stress-related. Meditating, using breathing exercises, and experimenting with other relaxation techniques is highly effective. Seeking treatment from a professional may also be helpful. Columbia students are encouraged to contact Counseling and Psychological Services (Morningside Campus) or Mental Health Services (CUMC Campus) for support.

By slowly incorporating different foods into your diet, you will be on the right path to achieving a healthy weight. For additional input, consider reaching out to a dietician. Columbia students may schedule an appointment with a nutritionist through Medical Services (Morningside) or Student Health (CUMC) and should also check out Alice! Health Promotion Nutrition Initiatives. If you are not a student at Columbia, check with your campus health service or primary care provider for a referral.

The long term health benefits of working to overcome food aversions are well worth it; those who undergo treatment often report enjoying eating more, being less anxious about social situations involving eating, and increased self-confidence both at and beyond the table. Bon appétit!


Getting your fill of chlorophyll

Dear Reader,

Now that your coworker has planted the idea of chlorophyll’s health benefits in your mind, it’s time to dig up some facts. Chlorophyll has been used as a supplement since the 1960s, although chlorophyllin, a solution of sodium copper salts made from chlorophyll, is more commonly and inexpensively available (this is likely what your coworker’s “chlorophyll water” contained). Although it does have some approved uses and suspected health benefits, no long-term or large-scale studies with humans have been done to conclusively prove its supposed health-boosting properties. Furthermore, while most supplements are made with chlorophyllin, studies suggest that chlorophyll naturally available in vegetables such as spinach, parsley, and garden cress may be a more potent health agent.

Chlorophyllin-containing papain/urea ointments and sprays are sometimes prescribed to treat inflammation, speed healing, and reduce odor in wounds. Patients with colostomies and ileostomies can also take over-the-counter supplements containing chlorophyllin to reduce fecal odor, although some studies dispute the efficiency in this. While these are the only two approved uses for chlorophyllin, other potential positive health effects may include:

  • Reducing damage from carcinogens. Chlorophyll has been shown to bind to carcinogens, such as those in tobacco smoke and cooked meats, thus reducing their ability to enter the bloodstream and reach tissues.
  • Protecting against liver cancer. A study in China showed that a biomarker for aflatoxin, a carcinogen found in improperly stored grains which causes liver cancer, was present at lower levels in participants who simultaneously consumed the toxin and chlorophyll. Because the development of cancer takes many years, however, the long-term effectiveness of chlorophyll is unclear.
  • Treating trimethylaminuria (or fishy body odor). Chlorophyll reduces the amount of trimethylamines, and the associated fishy odor, excreted by people with this hereditary condition.
  • Combating colon cancer. Chlorophyllin has been shown to inhibit DNA synthesis and repair processes in colon cancer cells, giving it potential for use in cancer therapy.
  • Antioxidant properties.

It’s important to note that chlorophyllin also has potential side effects. Taken by mouth, it can cause urine or feces to appear greenish, black or yellow discoloration of the tongue, or occasional diarrhea. Used as an ointment or spray, it can cause a slight burning or itching sensation. Despite these mild side effects, no major toxicity in chlorophyll or chlorophyllin has been discovered in more than 50 years of popular use. Because of the lack of substantial research into chlorophyllins, however, those who are pregnant or breastfeeding may want to avoid this supplement or check in with a health provider before using it.

In summary, while the grass may be greener on the chlorophyll-watered side, science has yet to demonstrate its health benefits outside of a few very specific uses.

Hope this helps!


I don't get hungry. When should I eat?

Dear Reader,

Although you describe your appetite as being low, the fact that you love food makes your problem much easier to manage. It sounds like you’re losing track of your eating schedule now that you’re on your own, but there are lots of ways to work around this, especially because you like to cook and eat! Establishing healthy habits takes time and effort, but practice makes perfect, and soon enough you’ll get into the swing of a healthy routine. Planning your meals in advance, incorporating food into your daily activities, and sticking to a schedule will all help you get there.

A widely accepted general rule is to not eat if you’re not hungry. However, not eating all day isn’t a particularly healthy pattern— consuming too little food throughout the course of the day may result in shakiness, tiredness, and general mental cloudiness as well as nutritional deficiencies and immune system weakness. The first step: Incorporating a healthy breakfast into your morning routine can help get your metabolism going early in the day, which can help boost appetite later on, helping you remember to eat. Although you may not feel hungry first thing in the morning, consider energizing your body with complex carbohydrates — try whole-grain cereals with milk, whole-wheat toast with peanut butter, or yogurt with nuts and fruit. For more information on other specific meal and snack options, check out the get balanced! Guide for Healthier Eating.

Once you’ve had your breakfast, you have a solid nutritional base to build off of for the rest of the day. Try sticking to a schedule by eating at approximately the same times every day, whether you choose to eat three large or six small meals per day. Spread your meals apart, and set alarms if needed. When mealtime arrives, make sure to focus on your food, and avoid eating on the go or while watching a movie. Mindfulness will help you get into a routine.

In addition to eating at regular times, try keeping a food journal to analyze your habits. Write down what and when you eat, and after a few days, check your journal for patterns. You might find, for example, that you tend to reach for sweet snacks around 3:00 p.m. for an afternoon pick-me-up. Adjust your food choices and eating schedule according to your observations.

More ideas: Choose a library or workspace that has vending machines with healthy options so you’re reminded to eat, or make a commitment to have lunch with a colleague, classmate, or friend, which will help to incorporate healthy eating into your professional, academic, and social engagements. Always make sure to have healthy snacks on hand so you aren’t forced to make poor nutritional choices under pressure. Nutritious and yummy snack options include string cheese and dried fruit, almonds and low-fat cottage cheese or yogurt, or multigrain crackers with sliced turkey, hummus, or a hard-boiled egg. Prepare your healthy snacks and meals at night so you don’t forget to bring food along with you in the morning.

More generally, have you ever investigated the possible reasons for your lifelong low appetite? Lack or loss of appetite is sometimes indicative of various medical and psychological conditions, so it would be helpful to make an appointment with your healthcare provider to discuss your concerns. Individuals experiencing sudden loss of appetite should meet with a healthcare provider as soon as possible. Columbia students can use Open Communicator or call 212-854-7426 to make an appointment with a healthcare provider on the Morningside Campus or dial 212-305-3400 to book over the phone with Student Health on the Medical Center Campus. Columbia community members are also encouraged to take a look at the Alice! Health Promotion Nutrition Initiatives.

Most importantly, be patient with yourself. Don’t try to make too many changes at once; slowly incorporating these ideas into your day will help you get on track without getting burned out or frustrated. If you slip up every now and then, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, ask yourself what caused you to forget to under- or overeat, and consider ways to adapt and prevent this from happening again. Bon appétit!


Am I too nuts for nuts?

Dear Reader,

A few things to consider: First, do the nuts and nut butters you’re eating have added salt or sugars? If so, you may want to look at your overall sodium and sugar intake. You can have “too much of a good thing” when it comes to salt and sugar. Second, how’s the rest of your diet? Are you eating lots of vegetables (don’t forget your greens)? What about whole grains and fruits? While the calories in nuts can meet your body’s energy needs and provide protein, fiber, and some vitamins, there are additional nutrients, vitamins, carbohydrates, and sugars that can only be found in vegetables, fruits, starches, and other protein sources. So, dear reader, depending on your answers to the questions above, the amount of nuts you consume may or may not help you achieve a balanced diet. If you're not sure what a balanced diet looks like, head on over to ChooseMyPlate.gov for more information.

Nuts provide a lot of nutritional benefits, not to mention convenience in the form of a quick and tasty snack. As you might already know, nuts are mostly made up of vegetable protein and unsaturated fat, as well as dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Studies have shown that eating nuts lowers the risks of coronary disease and cardiac death, and reduces serum cholesterol levels and risk of type 2 diabetes in women.

Some may worry that too many nuts will contribute to weight gain, but that doesn’t sound like an issue for you.  Weight gain is a result of calories in versus calories out. While nuts are a calorie-dense food, if the remainder of your diet is mostly low-calorie fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and some lean protein source, you probably aren’t eating more calories than you burn. The amount of calories you need is dependent on a number of factors, physical activity levels included. Eating nuts is even potentially protective against weight gain, as nuts can increase feelings of fullness and replace calories that would be consumed in other foods, leading to smaller and less frequent meals. Further, the number on the scale doesn’t necessarily indicate the health of a person. If you feel good, are living an active lifestyle, and consuming a balanced diet, your nutty obsession should be just fine. If you'd like to ask even more questions about your diet, you might consider making an appointment with a registered dietitian.

Enjoy and happy snacking!


Tongkat Ali — safe aphrodisiac for men?

Dear Reader,

While many people have probably not heard of it, Tongkat Ali has historically been used to treat health problems ranging from fevers to intestinal worms. This herbal extract is most popularly known (no wonder!) as an aphrodisiac for men. Although it comes from a plant in the Southeast Asian rainforests, it is now widely available either as a pill or an instant coffee additive. This herbal supplement, also known as Eurycoma Longifolia (EL), has not shown any severe health consequences in experiments conducted with rats. However, as a non-FDA approved substance which has not yet been tested extensively in humans, caution and careful consideration should be given along with consulting with a healthcare provider.

In one study, rats given various doses of Tongkat Ali were found to have increased sexual activity and greater sperm quality. Bigger effects were seen at higher doses, and doses ranged from 30 to 150 milligrams of drug per one kilogram of body weight (mg/kg). In another experiment with rats, administering doses of 1200 to 2400 mg/kg caused some liver damage in a few test subjects but did not otherwise harm them. While there are not studies of long-term use in animals or humans (including studies in women), researchers suggested further investigation of the impacts on the liver as well as research into sustained use.

If you are considering or taking Tongkat Ali pills, the largest dose usually recommended for humans is 400 milligrams per day, which is far below the toxic dose observed in the rat study. If you prefer Tongkat Ali-based coffee mix (TACM), a small trial with 20 human subjects showed that drinking 21 grams of TACM daily for four weeks improved participants’ ability to orgasm and sexual satisfaction, but had no significant impact on their body mass index (BMI), waistline, erectile function, or blood pressure. It is important to note, however, that the study subjects were overall healthy individuals. As always, if you have any health problems or are taking other medication, it’s best to talk to your health provider before starting any supplement, including Tongkat Ali. Columbia students can make appointments by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or Student Health (Medical Center).

Wishing you safe and pleasurable experiences!


What can I do with egg yolks?

Dear Reader,

What an egg-cellent question! Not only can egg yolks be used for recipes and DIY-beauty products, but also eggs are a healthy component of a balanced diet, as both the yolks and whites are rich sources of nutrients. Egg whites contain 4 grams of protein, only 17 calories, and almost no fat. While egg yolks actually contain more than 90 percent of the calcium, iron, zinc, folate, and Vitamins B6, B12, A, E, D, and K found in eggs, you’re correct that they can also be an unhealthy source of cholesterol

In fact, the American Heart Association recommends that Americans eat less than 300 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per day, but just one egg yolk has about 185 mg of cholesterol. One recent study even suggests that for people already at risk for heat disease, eating three or more egg yolks per week could be as damaging to arteries as smoking. Other research finds that eating eggs in moderation does not negatively affect cholesterol levels in healthy individuals. Check out the Alice! Health Promotion Nutrition Initiatives for more information about integrating eggs into a healthy diet.

If you do find yourself with extra yolks, you can use them to make custard, crème brûlée, aioli, Hollandaise Sauce, and more. For recipes, just do a quick Internet search for “egg yolk recipes.” Yolks can be saved for later by refrigerating them for three to four days or, for longer-term storage, freezing them in ice cube trays mixed with a pinch of salt or sugar. And for those who should avoid eating egg yolks altogether, there’s a sunny side — you can use egg yolks to create DIY hair treatments. Some people swear by egg yolks as treatments for split ends, dull or dry locks, and for strengthening weak strands. Again, a quick Internet search for “egg yolk hair treatments” will provide more than enough recipes to get you started.

Hope this was egg-ducational,


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