Healthy Eating

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Good vs. bad fats

Dear Curious,

The "good fat/bad fat" you've heard about refers to fat's potential to cause disease. All fats have the same amount of calories, but they vary in their chemical compositions and effects on health. Fats are made of chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms. The saturation refers to whether all the available spaces on the carbon chain are bonded to hydrogen atoms, or if there are any hydrogen atoms missing. The three forms of fat found in nature are:

Saturated Fats
These fats have all of their carbon atoms filled (saturated) with hydrogen. Saturated fat is primarily found in high-fat cuts of meat, poultry with the skin, whole and 2 percent dairy products, butter, cheese, and tropical oils: coconut, palm, and palm kernel. Our body needs a small amount (about 20 grams) of saturated fat each day, but the typical American diet usually exceeds that amount. Too much saturated fat may cause a person's bad cholesterol (LDL) to rise and may also increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer. You can look for the amount of saturated fats in a serving of food on the nutrition label, under the heading "Saturated Fat" below the larger heading of "Total Fat."

Monounsaturated Fats
These fats have one space missing a hydrogen atom, instead containing a double bond between two adjacent carbon atoms. Monounsaturated fat is found in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, and in most nuts and nut butters. This type of fat does not cause cholesterol to increase. When a person substitutes monounsaturated fat for saturated fat, it helps to lower the bad cholesterol and protects the good cholesterol (HDL) from going down. The amount of monosaturated fats (and polyunsaturated fats, see below) is not listed separately on the food label, but it can be calculated by subtracting the saturated and trans fats (see below) from the total fat.

Polyunsaturated Fats
These fats have more than one hydrogen atom missing in the carbon chain and therefore contain more than one double bond. The two major categories of polyunsaturated fats are Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 means there is a double bond in the third space from the end of the carbon chain. These fats are extremely healthful in that they protect against sudden death from heart attack. They can also help people lower their triglycerides. Omega-3s are used by the body to produce hormone-like substances with anti-inflammatory effects. The best sources of Omega-3s are fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, and rainbow trout, among others. Canola oil, walnuts, and flaxseed also contain some Omega-3s.

Omega-6 fats have a double bond in the sixth space from the end of the carbon chain. These fats are found in oils such as corn, soybean, cottonseed, sunflower, and safflower. Omega-6 fatty acids are used in hormone-like substances that promote inflammation. Replacing saturated fats with Omega-6 fats may reduce levels of total, bad, and good cholesterol. Many health experts suggest that the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids should be 4:1 for optimal health. (Most Americans get 14 - 20:1 — a lot more than needed!) These fats are not listed separately on the food label.

The other type of fat that is found in food, but isn't natural, is:

Hydrogenated Fats (also known as Trans Fats)
These are manufactured by adding hydrogen to a polyunsaturated fat, making it solid at room temperature. However, instead of having the qualities of a polyunsaturated fat, it takes on some of the traits of a saturated fat. In the past, trans fats were widely used in foods as a replacement for saturated fats. Then it was discovered that trans fat was even worse than saturated fat in terms of its effects on health. In addition to raising LDL cholesterol, as saturated fat does, it also decreases the level of HDL cholesterol.

Many companies have found ways to eliminate trans fats from their products and all companies are now required to list the amount of trans fats on the nutrition label. Be aware that products containing half a gram or less of trans fat per serving are allowed to report zero grams of trans fat on the nutrition label. The best way to check for trans fat is to read the ingredients label; if you see the words "partially hydrogenated" or "hydrogenated" in front the word oil, the food probably has a small amount of trans fat. This doesn't mean you shouldn't eat the food, but you should limit the amount you eat — a little can add up to a lot. Some foods contain small amounts of naturally-occurring trans fats, but these fats, unlike man-made trans fats, probably do not increase the risk of heart disease and other conditions. Moreover, some manufacturers are now replacing trans fat with saturated fats, so be sure to check the nutrition label to keep your total intake of unhealthy fats in check.

Although too much can have negative results, fats are certainly required for good health. Here are some of the positives — fats:

  • carry flavors
  • impart desirable textures — smooth, creamy, and crispy, to name a few
  • give us a sense of fullness and satisfy hunger
  • are needed to absorb and store certain vitamins and plant chemicals
  • can contribute to a person's enjoyment of food
  • are essential building blocks in cell production, maintenance, and repair
  • provide and store energy for the body's use

Bear in mind, though, that the calories from fat can add up fast since they are more concentrated in fat than in protein or carbohydrate. Also, as mentioned above, consuming too much saturated and trans fat may result in negative health consequences in some people. The secret is not to stay to one extreme or another; try to be flexible in your fat intake. What does that mean? Balance your meals and snacks. If you find you have a high fat meal (especially high in saturated fat), make the next one lower in fat. Or, if you choose a higher fat food, complement it with a lower fat one. We don't have to live an "all or nothing" philosophy when it comes to fat.

Alice

Dining out's effects on health

Dear Out to lunch bunch,


It's a great idea to think about your health when dining out! While restaurants and delis are convenient for lunch and provide a welcome opportunity to socialize, the results of eating out may be less than favorable for your health. Why is that? A couple reasons; (1) Much food eaten away from home is high in fat and calories, and (2) people tend to overindulge when they dine out, eating healthier when they are at home. Regardless of where you are eating, any healthy diet should include plenty of different fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. However, even healthier foods such as these may be more calorie-rich at restaurants; studies show restaurant food typically is more calorie dense — meaning more calories per bite — than similar food prepared at home.


In the United States, portion sizes have gone through the roof. Food is not particularly expensive for most restaurants, so they serve us what we have come to expect — LOTS OF IT! People tend to eat more when served larger portions.


It may be hard to believe that in the 1950s, Coca-Cola was packaged in 6.5-ounce bottles. Twelve-ounce cans and 20 oz bottles were next in the upsizing timeline, and now it's possible to get a super-sized soft drink at a fast food restaurant containing 42 oz or more. That's more than one liter! The original bottle of Coke was 81 calories. The super-sized beverage is over 300 calories (it would be more, but you get lots of ice included).


If you go to a fast food restaurant, a regular hamburger weighs in at almost four ounces and contains 250 calories. That's fine, but not many people just eat a plain burger. Compare it with a Big Mac at 7-½ ounces and 540 calories. Super size your fries and end up with 320 calories more than a small order. So, a well-known hamburger, giant fries, and a big beverage total 1410 calories — about two-thirds of a day's worth of calories for an average sized woman.


Fast food isn't the only high-calorie culprit. If you visit your local deli or pizza parlor you'll likely notice the size of sandwiches and pizzas are huge. On top of that, some pizzas come with stuffed crusts, adding an extra 120 calories per slice. And as for the heroes and hoagies, many delis make sandwiches with six ounces of meat or more. At home, most people would use three or four ounces.


Breakfast on the run adds up like you would not believe! The average bagel in New York City is anywhere from four to six ounces (translate: this equals 4 to 6 slices of white bread). Add a "shmear" of cream cheese and grab a carton of juice, and you just had a breakfast of 750 - 900 calories. Most people don't even count this as "eating out."


You may also want to consider the sodium and other food additives that are likely in some of your restaurant favorites. Salt certainly brings out the flavor in a meal, but in excess may also bring out undesirable health problems. Many restaurants offer low-sodium dishes. Asking for sauces and dressings on the side can help you to manage your salt, as well as calorie, intake.


In these examples, some of the foods (e.g., cheese, juice) have nutrients your body needs, but that is not always the case. Usually, extra calories eaten away from home are lower in fiber, calcium, and other important nutrients than foods eaten at home.


So, what is a busy person (or a person who just enjoys eating out) to do? Useful resources for healthy eating and living can be found at MyPyramid.gov. Additionally, here are some practical tips if restaurants are part of your daily regimen:

  • Look for items that are baked, broiled, steamed, roasted, or grilled, without sauces — ask for sauces or dressings on the side.
  • Try vegetable- or broth-based sauces (rather than cream-based) with meats, pasta, rice, etc.
  • Focus on packing fruits, veggies and whole grains into your meal wherever possible
  • Buy smaller portions when you have the choice — even if the larger sizes don't cost much more. Super sizing only benefits your wealth, not your health. 
  • Save money by sharing a meal with a friend.
  • If you are at a sit-down restaurant, forgo the appetizer, or order a salad or a non-creamy soup.
  • Ask for the bread or chip basket to be removed after you've had a few.
  • Think about getting an appetizer or soup as a main dish.
  • Order a side of steamed or roasted veggies.
  • If you are served a large portion, plan on bringing half of the food home to have for another meal.
  • If dessert is a must, pick fruit, sorbet, or keep some dark chocolate handy and have a small portion after your meal.
  • Eat regular meals and snacks, so you are less likely to overeat when you reach your favorite diner, deli or café.

It may be wise to view your restaurant dining as a convenience. That is, you are paying not to have to shop for food, cook, and clean up; however when it comes to eating a balanced diet restaurants aren't going to do the work for you. The mantra 'everything in moderation' is key when dining out. Bon appetit!

Alice

Breakfast ideas for thirteen-year-olds, and everyone else

Dear Student & Parent,

Bravo to eating breakfast! It's fairly well known as this point that a healthy breakfast is a great way to start each day — especially when it's made from scratch. Taking into consideration that, just sometimes, younger people are a little picky about what they'll eat, not to mention the energy it can take a groggy chef to whip up something in the A.M., here are a few easy, interesting, and nutritious breakfast recipes:

Creamy Apple-Cinnamon Oatmeal (makes two servings):

2 c. skim milk
1 c. rolled oats
1 T. Brown sugar
1 T. Maple syrup
1 apple — peeled, cored, and chopped into cubes

Directions:

  1. In a medium pot, heat the milk over medium heat, almost to a boil.
  2. Add the oatmeal, reduce the heat to low, and cook for about 5 minutes, or until all of the milk is soaked up by the oatmeal.
  3. Add the brown sugar, maple syrup, and apple pieces. Stir well and serve.

Berry Parfaits (makes two servings):

2 containers of yogurt (vanilla, lemon, or peach)
2 c. mixed berries: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and/or blackberries
1 c. low fat granola

Directions:

  1. In 2 glasses or plastic cups, add a layer of yogurt to the bottom. Cover with a layer of berries, and then sprinkle on a layer of granola.
  2. Repeat the layers until the glasses or cups are full, ending with a sprinkle of granola.

Egg Scramblers (one serving):

1 or 2 eggs
1 toasted whole wheat pita or toasted English muffin
Optional item(s): mushrooms, peppers, grated cheese, chopped tomatoes, onions, salsa, or whatever else you like!

Microwave Directions:

  1. Crack eggs into a glass measuring cup and beat well. Mix in any other ingredients you like.
  2. Cover tightly with a microwave safe plastic wrap.
  3. Microwave at 70 percent: 1 minute for 1 egg; 1-½ minutes for 2 eggs — slightly longer if you add other ingredients, or if you like your eggs more well done.
  4. Spoon into a pita, or onto a toasted English muffin.

Stovetop Directions:

  1. Crack eggs into a bowl and beat well. Mix in any other ingredients you like.
  2. Pour egg mixture into a non-stick pan. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until eggs are cooked through, not runny.
  3. Spoon into a pita or onto a toasted English muffin.

Banana Smoothie (makes one serving):

1 banana cut into 1-inch chunks (works great if already frozen)
½ c. yogurt
½ c. milk or soy milk
2 T. honey or jam
¼ t. vanilla extract

Directions:

  1. Put all of the ingredients into a blender. Mix until all of the fruit is pureed.
  2. Pour into a glass, and drink immediately.

You can freeze this beverage overnight, then toss it into a blender, and pour it back in the plastic cup you froze it in. If you run out of time in the morning, you can bring your smoothie with you on the way to school.

Regardless of what you make, consider involving your breakfast companion in both the decision process and making the breakfast. This way you can both enjoy some time together and a nutrient-filled morning. Eat up!

Alice

Eating at night = weight gain: Myth or fact?

Dear Reader,

You and your friends have picked up on a popular debate. One aspect of weight management that is vital to understand is that we gain and lose weight over periods of time — weeks, months, years — not hour by hour. This happens as we take in more calories than we expend. Another important fact of metabolism is that our bodies do not stop working, even when we are sleeping! Hearts are beating, blood is circulating, lungs are functioning, brains are even working. This all takes energy — meaning we are still burning calories.

There is no magic time after which the body stores fat. For instance, if you eat the same exact meal at 6 pm or at 8 pm, is one more caloric than the other? No, each meal has the same number of calories. What really matters is the total amount of food and drink you have over the course of a week, or a month or longer, and how much energy you expend during that timeframe. Excess calories will be stored as fat over time, regardless of whether they are taken in during the day or night.

When it comes to eating late at night and the potential for weight gain, there are several considerations:

  • Portion sizes — waiting to eat could lead to consuming larger portion sizes.
  • Quality of food — after a long day of work or school, a few slices of pizza or a fast burger may seem easier than steamed vegetables and broiled fish.
  • "Mindless snacking" — evenings spent studying, going out, or watching TV may lead to excess calories from fast, sugary, on-the-go options.
  • Health concerns — consistent periods of going without food followed by a large meal can negatively impact the interaction between blood sugar and insulin and make you more vulnerable to Type 2 diabetes.

So, to settle the debate, you are correct that late-night calories won't change your metabolism or magically count more than calories eaten during the day. However, limiting late-night meals and snacks may be an effective weight management strategy for some because it helps them to control their overall calorie intake. Some people find that if they set a time that they can't eat past, it helps minimize or eliminate the possibility of munching on a lot of high calorie foods. Another useful tip may to be to eat four or five smaller meals and snacks spread evenly throughout the day so you don't become overly hungry at any point. Following these tips can keep your energy levels consistent for work and play and can provide some long-term benefits to help you reduce your chances for diabetes or other health issues. 

Bon appétit! 

Alice

June 29, 2007

21199
Dear Alice,

Though your metabolism IS constantly at work, it does slow down later in the day, especially if you are just dieting and not exercising. When you exercise your heart rate and...

Dear Alice,

Though your metabolism IS constantly at work, it does slow down later in the day, especially if you are just dieting and not exercising. When you exercise your heart rate and metabolism both increase. In addition it is better to eat more meals and take in the same amount of calories because in doing so you keep your metabolism working. On the other hand if you eat less or worse starve yourself for several hours your metabolism slows down and potentially puts your body into a "starvation mode" where more insulin is released causing the body to store more fat. This is the most simple answer to this question.

Is margarine really better than butter?

Dear Baffled Over Butter,

You may be baffled over butter, but it sounds like you've got a good grip on chemistry! Some of the margarines sold in stores today are still made from oil that has been infused with hydrogen atoms, firming it up into a semi-hard or solid form at room temperature. This process is known as hydrogenation, and it allows the margarine to contain less saturated fat than butter. Unfortunately, hydrogenation also forms something known as trans fat, which actually does more damage to your body than saturated fat. (Both butter and margarine end up containing the same amount of total fat.)

Margarines made from hydrogenated oil usually appear in a solid stick form, similar to how butter is sold. Other kinds of margarines on the market today are made from non-hydrogenated oil, making them softer in texture and lower in calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and total fat. These soft margarines, which are commonly packaged in tubs and known as "soft-tub margarines," replace the hydrogenation process with small amounts of modified palm kernel and palm oil in order to make it softer and easier to spread.

Unlike margarine, butter isn't made from vegetable oil. Instead, butter is prepared from cream, contains saturated fat, and, because it's made from an animal source, also has cholesterol. Both saturated fat and cholesterol raise unhealthy cholesterol or LDL (low-density lipoprotein). Margarine is manufactured from vegetable oils, such as corn, soybean, or safflower oil, among others. Since margarine is based on plant sources, it doesn't contain cholesterol.

Because margarines don't contain cholesterol and are now made without trans fat, the American Heart Association recommends that soft margarine can be used instead of butter in recipes. Choose a margarine that contains less than two grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, no trans fat, and has liquid vegetable oil as the first ingredient.

If all this chat about fat has made you curious (or confused), check out Good vs. bad fats and "Good" and "bad" cholesterol in Alice!'s archives for more information.

Alice

Ooh, baby, I like it raw (or, is a raw diet healthy?)

Dear Considering,

Humans are the only animals to cook their food before eating it. Some say that the superior nutrition afforded by cooking our food is what has allowed our brains and bodies to develop the amazing complexities that they have. Others think that the humans who cooked their first meal 40,000 years ago took a step towards a long fall from grace that eventually led to fast food, heart disease, and related health concerns.

Many people who follow a raw diet — a diet composed primarily of uncooked fruits, vegetables, sprouts, nuts, seeds, grains, and beans — do report experiencing increased energy, improved skin appearance, better digestion, weight loss, and reduced incidence of heart disease. However there are probably just as many people who would claim that a raw diet made them feel lethargic, hungry, cold, and/or deficient in crucial vitamins and minerals. There are pros and cons of a raw diet, as with almost any diet you could come up with. The most important thing is to figure out what feels right for your body, lifestyle, climate, and nutritional needs, all of which may change throughout your life.

The main tenet of a raw food diet is to avoid cooking foods above 118 degrees Fahrenheit, the theory being that keeping enzymes intact allows the body to better absorb nutrients. Foods that are usually cooked, like grains and legumes, are broken down in other ways like soaking and sprouting. Soaking and sprouting seeds, grains, nuts, and legumes can render them full of enzymes, fully digestible, and high in proteins, vitamins, fats, and minerals. Fruits and vegetables can also be dehydrated into breads and cookies, blended into warm (under 118 F degrees) soups, and juiced. Because the raw food diet consists mainly of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, grains, legumes, seaweed, fresh juices, and purified water, it contains fewer transfats and saturated fats than the typical Western diet. A raw foods diet is also high in fiber, potassium, magnesium, folate, and health-promoting plant chemicals called phytochemicals.

Another advantage raw foods promoters cite is the diet's alkalizing effect on the blood. The more alkaline human blood, the more oxygen it absorbs. The more oxygen our blood absorbs, the better we feel. If our blood can't absorb enough oxygen we feel tired, gain weight, have poor digestion, develop aches, pains, and may develop conditions like cancer, heart disease, arthritis, and candida. The most alkalizing foods are raw dark green vegetables — especially leafy green vegetables like kale, collards, and chard; fruits like watermelon, avocado, cucumber, and young coconuts; herbs and spices like wheatgrass, parsley, basil, cilantro, cayenne, ginger; and sprouts made from mung bean and alfalfa. The opposite of alkalizing foods are acidic foods, which are mostly sugar, coffee and tea, animal products, white flour and other processed foods like cereal and baked goods, and transfats and saturated fats. Some believe that stress and environmental toxins also produce acidity in the blood. An easy way to determine your blood pH level is to buy a pH test strip at any health food store, pee on it, and read the results to tell how alkaline or acidic you are. While followers may be fervent about the benefits of going raw, there are few to no scientific, population-based studies backing up claims of significant health benefits.

Some critics of a raw food diet suggest that the body makes the enzymes needed to digest and assimilate food nutrients, and that, though you do lose some vitamins and minerals when cooking, there's nothing inherently wrong with cooking foods. In fact, cooking some foods allows our bodies to more easily digest their proteins, and makes certain nutrients more available to our systems for absorption. For example, lycopene, a plant chemical, is found in greater abundance in cooked tomato products than in raw ones. Cooking also helps to destroy certain bacteria and food-borne illnesses.

Other critiques associated with this diet are that it lacks calcium, iron, protein and vitamin B12. To avoid nutrient deficiency, strict raw foodists take supplements of vitamin B12, vitamin D, and drink herb teas like raspberry leaf and nettles to fortify the body with iron and calcium. By eating adequate amounts of sprouted beans, nuts, and seeds, raw food lovers can consume enough protein. Nausea, cravings, and headaches, which are symptoms of the body's detoxification, can occur as a result of starting a raw diet. Detox symptoms are especially likely to occur if a person's previous diet was rich in meat, sugar, and caffeine. With time (and drinking plenty of water) these symptoms usually go away. A strictly raw food diet might not be suitable for pregnant or nursing women, babies and young children, people with anemia, people at risk for osteoporosis, and those who live in very cold climates, although these people can certainly incorporate raw foods into their diets. As with any eating plan, considerable energy, time, thought, and commitment is necessary in order to maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle as a raw-foodie.

With diets, one size does not fit all. There is no one diet that will serve everyone the same; there probably isn't even one diet that will serve one person for very long. If you're a Columbia student and want more individualized guidance on optimal nutrition, you can make an appointment with a nutritionist at Medical Services through Open Communicator or by calling x4-2284. Non-Columbia students may want to start with a primary care provider who can help them find a nutritionist. You can examine what a raw diet entails, how to carry it out healthfully, and common pitfalls to avoid, but ultimately you will have to decide for yourself if it feels good to keep it raw one day a week, one week a month, one month a year, or hardly ever. Rawk on!

Alice

Eliminate all body and dietary fat — healthy?

Dear Anonymous,

In a word, no! Fat — both on our bodies and in our diet — gets an undeserved bad rap and is actually essential for our survival. Body fat is found in places you may not even think about when you're considering its role in our health. It's part of:

  • every cell membrane
  • some hormones and prostaglandins (hormone-like substances) which regulate many body functions
  • nerve sheaths (nerve coverings)

Body fat is categorized as either essential or storage fat; both types play a vital role in our functioning. Essential fat is found in bone marrow and lipid rich tissues throughout the body. Storage fat is located around internal organs and under the skin (subcutaneous). These two types of body fat play important roles in keeping our bodies healthy. For example:

  • A layer of fat surrounds each organ (such as your heart, liver, kidneys, etc.), protecting and cushioning it against impact during sports or accidents,
  • Fat helps maintain normal body temperature.
  • Fat provides us with a supply of stored energy, which can sustain us if food is not available.

Dietary fat is the fat found in a variety of foods and is a concentrated source of energy for the body. It is dangerous to eliminate all fat from your diet. Certain fats, essential fatty acids, can only be obtained from foods. These are incorporated into regulators of specific body processes such as blood pressure and even help us maintain healthy skin. Dietary fats are also required to absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K. These nutrients are vital to our vision, bone formation and maintenance, blood protection and clotting, nerve development, and can act as a defense against oxidation. In addition to their health benefits, fats provide joy in eating. They carry flavors and aromas, and provide foods with pleasurable textures. Fats also fill us and help satisfy our appetite.

When it comes to fat, too much or too little on our bodies and in our diets is not recommended. The related Q&As below can shed some more light on the facts about fat.

Alice

Health benefits of fish oils

Dear Curious,

Somthing's fishy about your lab results. The improvement in your cholesterol levels may be due to the foods you replaced with the fish, rather than the fish in and of itself. The fats found in some varieties of fish, omega-3 fatty acids, reduce triglyceride levels in the blood, but generally do not affect cholesterol levels.

However, you're still doing yourself a favor by feasting on fish. Eating fish offers many major health advantages. The primary benefit found from including fish oils in your diet is the lowered risk for sudden cardiac death. This means that fish eaters decrease their chance of dying suddenly from a heart attack (keep in mind that there are different types of heart attacks).

Two mechanisms explain how eating fish reduces the chance of heart attack. First, it seems that fish oil fatty acids reduce blood clotting by decreasing the stickiness of blood platelets. Second, omega-3 oils may play a role in stabilizing heart rhythms. It could be that the electrical impulses that go awry during some heart attacks are preserved in fish eaters. These protective qualities may work together, resulting in the reduced risk of sudden cardiac death that has been observed among fish consumers. Other possible health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are their potential to help lower blood pressure and protect against some forms of stroke.

Remember, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. There are certain risks associated with eating too much fish. The main risk has to do with the toxicity of environmental contaminants, primarily mercury, which ends up in fish due to environmental pollution. Because of this, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are often advised to avoid fish. In addition, there are various recommendations for eating fish to avoid consuming dangerous levels of mercury, as its toxicity can damage the brain, kidneys, and lungs. Mercury levels may be especially high in shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish.

But in moderate amount, fish can be beneficial, especially for people eating a western diet that is often low in omega 3s. Good sources of omega 3 include:

  • Shrimp
  • Salmon
  • Mackerel (watch out for the higher mercury levels in king mackerel)
  • Rainbow and lake trout
  • Sardines
  • Halibut
  • Pollock
  • Oysters
  • Catfish
  • Albacore, blue fin, and yellow fin tuna (including the canned type)
  • Striped sea bass
  • Turbot
  • Swordfish (watch out for higher mercury levels)

Fish oil supplements, on the other hand, contain almost no toxic contaminants and thus are safe. However, they can cause gastric symptoms, so it is best to take them with food. People with low blood pressure or who are taking medication for low blood pressure should also be careful about eating too much fish, since the fish oil could lower blood pressure even more. In very high amounts, fish oils can have some anti-coagulant effects, causing nosebleeds in some people.

Eating these jewels of the sea even once or twice a week may lead to heart healthy benefits. Obviously an all-around healthy diet will provide even more protection from heart disease, and other maladies, too.

Alice

Fast all day and feast at night — healthy?

Dear Reader,

As a general rule, fasting all day on a regular basis is not a good idea, even if you "make up" the skipped calories at night. Although our bodies are remarkable in their ability to adapt to over and under eating at times, they need energy throughout the day to perform at an optimal level.

Paying attention to hunger signals (they are there for a reason!) and being aware of how much food you need to maintain physical and mental energy is healthy. By fasting all day you deny your body nutrients and energy which may lead to headaches, mood swings, feeling tired and dizzy, and even fainting. Your metabolism may also slow down and you could lose muscle mass. Fasting also may make you more likely to binge in the evenings, and you may be more likely to choose unhealthy foods.

You may want to ask yourself why you are skipping meals during the day. Observing religious holidays or special occasions is one reason many people fast from time to time. For most people, our bodies can adapt and function through the occasional fast, whether it is a sun-up to sun-down fast, or extends for a full day (children and people with certain medical conditions may need to forgo even occasional fasting; consult your health care provider if you are uncertain).

If you fast frequently you may want to consider some of your motivations. Are you trying to lose weight? Do you not feel hungry during the day? Are you too busy to eat? If you are trying to lose weight, eating several small meals throughout the day might be a better option. This will provide you with a more constant and consistent source of energy in a form that makes it easier for your body to metabolize and burn calories. Skipping meals is not a healthy approach to weight loss since fasting slows down metabolism and makes people more likely to overeat later.  See Will skipping breakfast and lunch lead to weight loss? and Importance of eating breakfast for more information on skipping meals.

You mention eating "whatever you want" at night. Could this be because you feel guilty about eating certain kinds of foods, or about the amount of food you eat? These concerns are issues to think about before you can adopt a more healthful eating plan and positive attitudes toward eating. They may also be a sign of disordered eating, or other issues such as depression. If you're experiencing guilt or are anxious about food, contact a mental health professional who can help you get to the bottom of these feelings and behaviors. Columbia students should contact Counseling and Psychological Services at x4-2878.

If your question is motivated by the desire to lose or manage your weight, consider making an appointment with a nutritionist who can help you figure out a meal plan that works for you and fits your lifestyle. If you are a Columbia student, you can make an appointment with a nutritionist through Open Communicator or by calling x4-2284. Non-Columbia students may want to start with a primary care provider who can help them find a nutritionist.

Although it's not always easy to change your eating habits, taking care of your health is worth it in the long run.

Alice

How can I eat well at college?

Dear Confused and College Bound,

You are not alone with your concerns. Going to college is a big step in a person's life involving major changes. You and those around you may be living on your own for the first time, making decisions on a buffet of issues, including what to eat.

Eating healthy at college is possible. Many college dining services are offering more healthy choices and are often quite receptive to students' concerns and dietary preferences. But, this is only part of the challenge. In an environment where time, friends, and finances may combine in new ways, having options available only solves some of the puzzle. It's important to experiment with what works best for you. For example, that traditional idea of three square meals a day has been updated with a more contemporary concept of eating five smaller meals spread throughout the day. Steer clear of diets or fads, especially those that drastically limit a particular nutrient. Remember, balance, moderation, and variety win out over trendy and extreme. For some practical tips, navigate through the many options on Choosemyplate.gov. Columbia students can also take advantage of the resources from the Get Balanced initiative. Plan ahead when possible so you don't have to rely on vending machines when you're hungry; think of ways to incorporate fruits, vegetables, and whole grains on a daily basis. Eating more of these will fill you up and possibly even enhance your already stellar brain power.

Making time for physical activity is important, too. Most college fitness centers have a variety of movement classes and options. When the weather is right, grab a friend and walk, run, bike, or blade outdoors. If you are Columbia affiliated, you can connect with the CU Move initiative.  CU Move encourages members of the Columbia community to engage in active lives that include regular physical activity. The program provides participants with motivation, incentives to be active throughout the year, and event calendars with access to plenty of free and low-cost physical activity options on campus and around NYC. 

Now, to address the second part of your question: an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, is less about food, eating, and body weight. It has more to do with mental health, emotional, physical, socio-cultural, and family issues. If this is a particular concern of yours, you might want to take a look at Eating disorders vs. normal eating. Additionally, if you are a Columbia student, you can make an appointment with a health care provider or a registered dietitian to discuss your concerns by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).

Give yourself some time to adjust to a new environment and ask for help when you need it. Everything in moderation, even moderation. 

Enjoy your time at college,

Alice

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