Healthy Eating

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Food Guidelines — How much is a serving?

Dear Trying to Eat Healthy,

Knowing what and how much to eat can feel overwhelming. In recognition of the fact that more Americans are overweight and obese than ever before, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)/U.S. Department of Health and Human Services regularly reviews and updates the food guide recommendations. The newest update by "Choose My Plate" and makes suggestions based on age, gender, and activity level. It no longer recommends amounts of food in terms of serving size, but rather suggests portions according to actual weights and amounts of specific foods. You can learn more about how to apply the new food guide recommendations to your lifestyle at ChooseMyPlate.gov.

Even though there is no single chart that details how much of a particular food constitutes a serving, you can click on each food group's heading (see below) for more information on common portion sizes. Also, here's a basic breakdown of the guidelines:

Grains
One serving equals 1 slice of bread; 1/2 cup of cooked rice, pasta, or cereal; or 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal. All of these serving sizes are known as "ounce equivalents" in Choose My Plate-speak.

As a general rule of thumb,
1 serving size/ounce equivalent of bread = plastic CD case
2 servings/ounce equivalents of cooked brown rice = a tennis ball

Vegetables
Unlike the Grains group described above, cup size matters when it comes to vegetables. That is, vegetables servings are measured in cups rather than ounces. One serving equals 1/2 cup of raw or cooked vegetables or vegetable juice or 1 cup of leafy raw vegetables.

1 serving size = 1/2 cup of broccoli = a light bulb
1 serving size = 1/2 cup of potato = a computer mouse

Fruits
Like the vegetable group, cup size matters here, too. One serving equals 1 cup of fruit or 100 percent fruit juice, or 1/2 cup of dried fruit. Because fruits come in so many different shapes and sizes, it's hard to say how many pieces of fruit count as a serving.

Generally, 1 serving size of whole fruit = 1 tennis ball
1 serving size of cut fruit = 7 cotton balls

Dairy
One serving equals 1 cup of milk or yogurt, 1.5 to 2 ounces of cheese, and even 1.5 cups of ice cream. Choose low-fat options from this group whenever possible.

1 serving size of cheese = 2 9-volt batteries

Protein
Like the Grains group, serving sizes are also measured in ounce equivalents. One serving or ounce equivalent equals 1 ounce of cooked lean meat, poultry, or fish; 1/4 cup cooked beans; 1 egg; 1 tablespoon of peanut butter; or 1/2 ounce of nuts or seeds.

3 servings/ounce equivalents of fish = 1 checkbook
3 servings/ounce equivalents of meat or poultry = 1 deck of cards
2 servings/ounce equivalents of peanut butter = 1 roll of 35 mm film or 1 ping-pong ball

Oils
Choosemyplate.gov measures serving sizes in teaspoons.

1 serving/teaspoon of margarine and spreads = 1 dice
2 serving/teaspoons of salad dressing = 1 thumb tip

Because these oils are found in many of the foods we eat, there may not be a need to add this group to your diet. For example, half of a medium avocado or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter provide 3 and 4 teaspoons or servings of oil respectively, while also counting towards your vegetable or nuts allowance.

Remember, also, that most portions in the U.S. are oversized and contain several servings of the recommended categories. Ideally you want most of your food to be whole grains, plenty of fruits and vegetables, low-fat calcium fortified foods (such as milk and cottage cheese), and lean sources of protein (such as fish, turkey, and chicken).

If you're hungry for more information on dietary recommendations, check out the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 and the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Food and Nutrition Information web site. At Columbia, you can make an appointment with a registered dietitian to discuss your concerns and get more individualized information by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).

Alice

Difference between olive oil and corn oil

Dear Three-in-one,

There is a bit of debate about the pros and cons of olive oil vs corn oil. Some newer research suggests when included in a well-balanced diet, corn oil may have comparable or possibly greater, health benefits when juxtaposed with olive oil. Both corn and olive oil are made up of mostly unsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are often described as “healthy fats”. Research suggests that these two types of fatty acids may help lower cholesterol, normalize blood clotting, and also possibly improve insulin and blood sugar levels — and they are healthier choices to cooking with butter or lard. Good vs. bad fats can provide some more detailed information about the different types of fat found in food.

Olive oil has a higher percentage of monounsaturated fats when compared to corn oil. The exact ratios are as follows:

  • Corn oil: 59% polyunsaturated 24% monounsaturated 13% saturated, which give a 6.4:1 unsaturated/saturated fat ratio
  • Olive oil: 9% polyunsaturated 72% monounsaturated 14% saturated, which gives a 5.8:1 unsaturated/saturated fat ratio

For quite some time monounsaturated fats were credited with lessening the hardening of arterial walls and thus reducing risks of heart and kidney disease. Recent clinical studies seem to lean more heavily towards the positive impact of polyunsaturated fats over monounsaturated fats in protecting against heart disease.

Also of note when cooking with oils, corn oil tends to be more stable at higher heats, whereas olive oil is more stable at lower heats and tends to burn at high heats. So, depending on your recipe, one may be more suitable on the stove than the other.

Olive oil also has the most nutritional value when it is freshest, according to researchers. As soon as olive oil is exposed to air and light it begins to degrade and lose its heart-healthy benefits. While many of us are accustomed to expiration dates on bottles and cans, olive oil can also have both an expiration date and a harvest date — checking for those is advised by industry leaders. Olive oil enthusiasts and experts suggest using oil within about six months of harvest, if possible. When you store olive oil between uses, try to keep it in a cool environment away from light.

When shopping for corn oil, some consumers may be concerned with finding sources that are free of genetically modified organisms (or GMO-free). Corn is one of a handful of crops that are more likely to be genetically engineered than others. To learn more about GMO debate, check out GMO’s — okay for consumption?

While the existing research on olive and corn oil has certainly shaped nutritional recommendations we may have heard for years, it’s also worth noting that even clinical studies have limitations. And just like the evolving understanding of monounsaturated fatty acids vs. polyunsaturated fatty acids, what we know about olive oil and corn oil today may evolve with new research and deeper understandings of how these oils play a role in our bodies and health. 

Perhaps equally if not more important than the type of oil itself, is what you are sautéing, dressing, or marinating. Eating a well-balanced diet in addition to choosing dishes and snacks with healthy fats may make the bigger impact on overall health. Some research suggests that diets with an emphasis on vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains (and less emphasis on meat, poultry, and dairy) when partnered with healthier fats from sources like nuts, corn oil, and olive oil can promote heart health and lower cholesterol.

If you are looking for more individualized advice on diet and nutrition, you may want to speak with a registered dietician, or a health care provider. If you’re a Columbia student, both the Morningside campus Medical Services and the Student Health Service on the Medical Center campus have registered dieticians on staff for nutritional consultations. You can also access nutritional information through Alice! Health Promotion Nutrition Initiatives.

Here’s to good eating and good health!

Alice

What to eat?

Dear Reader,

How's this for a treat — you should eat whatever you want to, just as long as it's in moderation. Eating can be for fuel, but can, and many would argue should, be for pleasure as well. Of course, sometimes you have to take the pleasure with some pain; in this case, better make it whole-wheat pain (French for bread). In addition to whole wheat and whole grain products, fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein and low- or non-fat dairy products should also be eaten regularly in order to ensure that you're getting all the nutrients you need from a healthy and balanced diet.

How much of any food group you should eat depends on your age, sex, weight and activity level. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a typical man aged 19-30 should try to eat eat about 8 ounces of grains, with at least 4 ounces coming from whole grains, 3 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of dairy products, 6.5 ounces of protein (lean meats and beans) and are allowed 7 teaspoons of foods from the oil group.

A typical woman aged 19-30 should try to eat 6 ounces of grains, with 3 ounces coming from whole grains, 2.5 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of dairy products, 5.5 ounces of protein (lean meats and beans) and can consume about 6 teaspoons from the oil group. With a balanced diet like those described above, men and women can eat still eat sweets and treats in moderation and maintain a healthy diet.

These are only guidelines, which can most certainly be tailored to your activity level, medical history, and/or food likes and dislikes. If you are looking for a specific nutritional plan, it's a great idea to discuss any concerns and thoughts with a health care provider. Students at Columbia can make an appointment with a registered dietitian or their health care provider by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).

If this has whetted your appetite to find out more on what and how much of a food constitutes a serving and what group it comes from, you can check out the choosemyplate.gov site. You can also check out Food Guidelines — How much is a serving? in the Go Ask Alice! archives for more information on serving sizes, as well as where to go to learn more about dietary recommendations. Another great resource is the Get Balanced! Guide for Healthier Eating.

Bon appétit!

Alice

Ice cream for breakfast?

Dear icecreamlover,

Regardless of the time of day you eat it, ice cream wouldn't make it on any top ten healthy foods list. However, if your body is able to deal with the high doses of sugar and fat first thing in the morning, which many adults cannot, there might not be reason to toss out the ice cream scoop just yet.

The most important thing is to eat something within the first few hours after waking up in order to get your metabolism going and refuel your body after not eating for several hours. The fat in ice cream may help you stay full longer, and it contains a lot of calcium, which your body needs for healthy bones and other important functions.

Sound too good to be true? It might be… if you did it every day. Like many other things in life, too much of a good thing may not always be the best for you. Ice cream is high in calories and saturated fats, which is why it's a supplement to, rather than a basic staple, of a healthy diet.

If you're choosing ice cream first thing in the morning because you love that it's sweet, creamy, and cold, you may want to try some low-fat yogurt instead. It's like ice cream but not as high in fat, calories, or sugar. All the while, it still provides you with ample amounts of calcium. If you don't mind warming up, you could also try oatmeal sweetened with a touch of brown sugar, cinnamon, or honey and stir in some chopped up fruit for more flavor. Making the oatmeal with milk instead of water can help you feel full longer and provide essential vitamins and minerals, including calcium. If it's just your sweet tooth you're looking to satisfy, you could try switching to granola with fruit and yogurt, toast with jam or fruit spreads, or lightly sweetened cereal with milk.

Combining these foods with the occasional bowl of ice cream in the morning will help to ensure that you're eating a healthy and balanced diet overall. Of course, it's also important to eat well throughout the day, which means including plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products in other meals. For more tips on healthy eating, check out the related Q&As below.

Bon appétit!

Alice

First-year fifteen — can it be avoided?

Dear Hopelessly hungry,

It's true that some students put on weight when they first come to college, however this is not a universal event, nor a foregone conclusion. For many first year students, it's their first time away from home, making choices about what to eat, how much, and how often. On top of this, many college students eat in cafeterias, where meal options are abundant and portion control can be a daunting task. Students may also be facing new challenges and situations that lead them to eat for reasons other than hunger — such as coping with stress, loneliness, or even hanging out and having fun late at night with friends.

You can, however, make good food choices. Here are some general tips for finding healthier options:

  • Choose baked or grilled foods over fried foods
  • Choose water, milk, or fortified soy milk over sodas
  • Buy groceries if possible: you can better plan your meals, or at least have healthy snacks on hand when you get hungry during late-night chats or study sessions
  • Try to control portion size: ask for a smaller amount, or remember you can come back for seconds if your dining hall is self-serve
  • Have fruit for dessert (and grab an extra piece to snack on later)
  • Vary your entrée selections: try to have chicken, fish, other meat, vegetarian, and pasta once or twice a week each
  • Avoid cream-based soups and sauces
  • Moderation is key: pizza, burgers, or ice cream once in a while are fine; just don't make them your key food groups

All in all, you want to aim for a varied diet with enough whole grains, lean protein, and fruits and vegetables and minimal fatty and sugary foods. For more tips about working in healthier foods, check out the Optimal Nutrition section of the Go Ask Alice! archive, learn more about the tools from Columbia's get balanced! initiative, or visit Choosemyplate.gov. You can also call your school's health service and make an appointment with, or get a referral for, a registered dietitian to create an appropriate food plan for your individual needs. At Columbia, students can contact Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC) to make an appointment.

There are often different culprits outside of the dining hall. During the first year at college, some students consume much more alcohol than in the past. Although there is no fat in alcohol, calories from alcohol are unusual in that they can't be stored or converted to energy for later use. Meaning that calories from alcohol are used first by the body, while calories from food that would otherwise be burned are stored, potentially contributing to weight gain.

Additionally, many first-year students might not think about exercising or may have trouble finding the time. Eating balanced meals and participating in regular physical activity are both major factors in losing or maintaining weight. If your concern is avoiding weight gain, keep physical activity in mind as a key ingredient. It may help to work out with a friend or schedule your exercise — Columbia students, faculty, and alumni can connect with CU Move to access tools and support for choosing strategies that support being physically active.

Gaining a few pounds may feel like the worst thing that can happen to you; however, it's important to learn how to take care of yourself, stay healthy, listen to your body, and eat because you're hungry — not because you don't want to study, you just got in a fight with your roommate, or you think you might have flunked a test. Check out the related questions and tips below to think about what you can do to maintain a healthy eating routine, and have a great first year.

Alice

P.S.:

Healthy Eating on Campus

Eat varied and well-balanced meals at your school's eateries. Besides what you choose to eat, watch how much you eat as well, because calories count and can add up quickly.

Breakfast

  • Low- or nonfat yogurt with fresh fruit or cold cereal
  • Cold cereal (especially whole grain varieties) with skim milk
  • Hot cereal (such as oatmeal)
  • Waffles with fruit
  • Whole grain toast

Lunch

  • A sandwich — choose lean meats (such as fresh roasted turkey, roast beef, or ham), grilled or fresh veggies, and low- or nonfat cheeses; top with whole wheat, rye, or whole grain breads; spread on some mustard rather than mayo or other dressing (unless low- or nonfat is available)
  • A salad — include beans, peas, grains, and sweet potatoes (if offered), as well as a variety of fresh veggies (including different types of lettuce, if available) and fruits; choose low-fat dressings and get them on the side
  • Soup — choose broth-based rather than cream-based
  • Pasta — stick with tomato-based rather than cream-based sauces, and try to get them on the side
  • A meat entree — choose baked, broiled, steamed, stewed, or roasted skinless and de-fatted meats

Dinner

  • Vary your entree selection — meat once a week, fish once or twice a week, pasta once or twice a week, chicken once or twice a week, and vegetarian once a week
  • Steamed veggies
  • Salad or soup (see above for hints)


No time to cook?

Dear Simple Tastes,

Actually, your diet does sound fairly healthy...for one day, once in a while! What it's missing is variety — you need to vary your foods in order to cover all your vitamin and mineral, or micronutrient, requirements (and not get bored with your food!).  Also, it turns out you have good, caring friends who are giving you helpful advice!

Back to varying your diet — luckily, variety doesn't always require lots of time or effort. You can get your micronutrients by quickly including vegetables in the foods you're already eating. Start by adding lettuce, tomato, and/or red pepper slices to your whole grain bread and cheese combo. You can buy the veggies pre-washed and sliced at many grocery stores and delis. Snacking on mini-carrots that come pre-washed and peeled or enhancing your meals with frozen vegetables can also help provide necessary nutrients. What about adding a veggie to your soft-boiled eggs at breakfast? Frozen spinach would taste great and is also quick to prepare.

Next, throw in some additional fruits. Varying by color helps to insure a wide variety of nutrients. So, what about apples? You can choose from a variety of types (e.g., Granny Smith, Empire, and Macintosh) and they are fairly inexpensive. Canned foods are great to have around. Pick up some canned pineapple, mandarin oranges, or peaches. Try to purchase canned fruit in their own juice instead of in heavy syrup — this cuts down on the sugar. What about slicing a banana in your canned pineapple? Easy breezy.

Your body also needs minerals to stay healthy. Some of these minerals include calcium, iron, sodium, manganese, copper, iodine, and magnesium. Since dietary guidelines are different from one person to the next, check out ChooseMyPlate.gov for an extensive breakdown based on daily calorie intake and age. Here are a few of the overall messages:

  • Great grains: Grain products include bread, pasta, rice, and crackers. Grains can be whole-grain or refined, but whole-grains are best. Aim to make half of the total amount of grains eaten in one day the whole-grain kind.
  • Taste the rainbow: Eat a variety of fresh, brightly-colored fruits and vegetables. The vegetables can be dark green as well. These colors indicate that the produce is full of antioxidants and vitamins, giving you the most nutritious bang for every bite.
  • Lean and mean: Choose low-fat and lean versions of meats and dairy products. In addition, tofu and other soy products are great sources of protein.
  • Finicky about fat: Make sure the majority of fat in your diet comes from fish, nuts, and vegetable oils. These fats are the unsaturated fats — they're liquid at room temperature and will not raise your cholesterol or increase your risk of heart disease. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, raise cholesterol, and increase your risk of heart disease. These fats should be limited and include butter, stick margarine, lard, and the white streaks of fat in many fatty meats.

Some other ways to spice up your diet, even when you're in a rush, can also include:

  • Shakin' it up: Make a fruit shake with bananas, yogurt, soy or dairy milk, wheat germ, and frozen berries.
  • Pita packer: Hummus (a chickpea and sesame puree spread and dip) in a pita or whole-grain bread with sliced vegetables and cheese can provide you with protein, fiber, phosphorus, and zinc.
  • Nuts about nuts: Nuts are full of healthy fats (the unsaturated ones listed above), protein, and minerals. They're also easy to eat and require little preparation or clean-up, so grab a handful next time you're on the go.
  • Putting the deli in delicious: Adding low-salt and low-fat deli meat, such as sliced turkey, sliced chicken, or tuna, to your sandwiches or meals helps boost the protein content of your diet while giving you a healthy shot of selenium, phosphorus, and chromium. If you're vegetarian, tofu is a good substitute that provides many of the same minerals.
  • Just juice: Drinking a glass of juice in the morning (or any other time of day) is a quick and easy way to get some of the vitamins you need. Watch out for juices that are naturally high in sugar though (e.g., orange, apple, and grape juice). These juices should be limited to one or two eight-ounce servings per day. Low-sodium tomato juice or V-8 can give you some of the vitamins you need without all the sugar or sodium, and they can be enjoyed more frequently.

Columbia students on the Morningside campus should check out Get Balanced! for specific information related to eating healthy at Columbia. Students can also make an appointment with a registered dietitian by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC). Remember, in order for all your hard working efforts to be fruitful, it can only help if your diet is fruit-filled and balanced, too!

Alice

Getting off colas, sodas, pop, fizz...oh, whatever!

Dear Cokehead,

Drinking too much of the bubbly? Regular soda (not diet) is a source of sugar, caffeine, sometimes caramel coloring, and little else. A 12-ounce can of regular soda typically contains approximately 150 calories and 40 grams of sugar. The American Heart Association recommends that men limit their added sugar intake to nine teaspoons (or 36 grams) per day and women get no more than six teaspoons (or 24 grams) of added sugar per day. One can of pop…er, soda, can throw that recommendation to the curb! In addition, when consuming a soda, you are getting empty calories. That is, the soda is providing no other nutritious, good-for-you stuff — just good old calories and carbohydrates. True, these carbs can be used by the body for energy; however, if consumed in excess, sugar/carbs can contribute to weight gain.

Besides that, the sugar and acid in soda can increase your chances for cavities. Acid can wear down tooth enamel and cause tooth decay. Enamel is the thin, outer layer of hard tissue that helps maintain the tooth's shape and structure. Certain sodas also contain caffeine. If you're bothered by headaches, restlessness or anxiety, you may want to take a closer look at just how much caffeine you get in a typical day. One (12 oz) can of a cola product has about half the caffeine as a cup of coffee. On the upside, caffeine can improve mental alertness and provide a quick pick-me-up. Much research on the long-term effects of caffeine has found that two cups of coffee per day has little or no negative health consequences. However, too much caffeine can cause anxiety and/or sleep loss. Also, caffeine increases stomach acid levels, which can cause stomach irritation.

In terms of "quitting" soda, going cold turkey can be difficult. The good news is that you can feel physically and mentally better after an initial period of adjustment. Start the quitting process by cutting down on the amount of soda you drink each day. Do this for a few weeks and gradually reduce your intake until you aren't drinking any soda. Headaches, lethargy, and/or simply feel the "blues" are all normal parts of the cutting back process. In the meantime, here are some alternatives to soda that you can try:

  • Seltzer with a little unsweetened cranberry or grape juice
  • Unsweetened, non-caloric flavored seltzers
  • Plain tap water with lemon juice and an optional one to two teaspoons of sugar

Keeping a journal of your soda consumption can be helpful in making you aware of how much soda you are actually drinking. How much soda you consume may surprise you. You might also try quitting with a friend. Having a buddy around can help make the quitting process easier, and even a fun challenge. Lastly, if you're thirsty and there's nothing else around, it can become easy to pop some coins in the closest soda machine. Keeping alternative beverages around, like water or seltzer, can help quench your cravings. Cheers to that!

Alice

May 5, 2014

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Quitting soda has been extremely difficult for me and even though I have cut back considerably, I still struggle with cravings. One thing I noticed is that I would often crave soda when I was truly...
Quitting soda has been extremely difficult for me and even though I have cut back considerably, I still struggle with cravings. One thing I noticed is that I would often crave soda when I was truly just thirsty and dehydrated. Next time you want a soda, tell yourself that first you will drink a full glass of water. If you still want a soda afterwards, then enjoy! (Spoiler alert: most of the time you don't)

Eating poorly, no exercise, and feeling bad about it!

Dear Reader,

Although the way you feel about your body is valid, sometimes it is helpful to remember that we are harder on ourselves than we need to be. You are smart for not wanting to "diet." Restricting food intake usually backfires because you end up eating more in the long run. This is especially true for college students with late night study schedules. Take a more holistic approach to your health, eating habits, and lifestyle, and make realistic changes considering your current situation at school.

Even if it's true that you feel better when you're exercising and now you're not, you can still benefit from eating healthfully. Many school dining services now offer more healthy and low-fat choices and can alter portion sizes to meet your needs.

For a healthy vegetarian diet, choose a variety of grains: brown rice, breads (whole grain when possible), pasta, cereals, and bulgur. Beans and peas — kidney, pinto, lentils, chickpeas — are a great way to balance grains and get a complete protein source. This category also includes tofu and tempeh, available at health food stores, and probably in some meal choices at your school's dining service. Fruits and veggies are also an important source of vitamins and minerals. If you eat dairy products, eat them in moderation or try low-fat or nonfat varieties.

With whatever food choices you make, eat enough throughout the day so you are hungry, not starving, at night. Do you eat breakfast? If not, a bowl of cereal with fruit can help jump-start your day. If you are living in a residence hall, keep some food in your room, such as fresh fruit, yogurt, cereal, and milk. You can also bring food with you to classes. Throw a piece of fruit in your bag for later, or carry some trail mix and dried fruit, graham crackers, rice cakes, or breadsticks, which won't spoil in your backpack. And you may want to eat several smaller meals throughout the day rather than three larger ones, if that's the case.

Additionally, plan for and allow yourself a late-night study snack, roughly two hours before going to bed. With this plan, you'll know you are supposed to have a snack, so you'll be more likely to make a wise choice no matter where you are. Try a piece of fresh fruit, air-popped popcorn, nuts and raisins, or cut-up veggies. Avoid a highly sugared item, like a candy bar, because it can leave you feelig more hungry, and even tired. And watch how much you eat because calories can add up quickly.

As you know, eating healthy at a cafeteria is only part of the challenge. Making time for physical activity is important, too. If you don't have time to formally integrate exercise into your schedule, walking and climbing stairs are a great way to get some exercise without taking up extra time. Get off a few stops early if you are taking mass transit and walk the rest of the way to your destination. You can also try climbing the stairs instead of taking the elevator all the time. You can also check out the exercise classes offered at your school's fitness center. They are usually free for students, and can complement your yoga class. Maybe you and a friend can sign up together and motivate each other to go; or, the two of you can agree to work out together twice a week. It sounds like you know what to do. The next step is to make a plan and follow through with it. Take it slowly, and don't get down on yourself if you miss a workout. For more information on nutrition and overall health at Columbia, students may conatct Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC) to make an appointment with a registered dietitian. Outside of Columbia, you may want to speak to your health care provider for a referral.

Alice

Serious sweet tooth

Dear Sugar Destroyer,

Cookies and sodas and ice cream, oh my! While sugar isn't your enemy, a person can have too much of a good thing. This is especially true when that good thing has only the sweetness, but no other "good things" that your body needs to function properly (e.g. nutrients like vitamins, minerals, proteins, etc.). The empty calorie issue, however, is only one part of the problem with consuming excessive amounts of sugar — more on that later. Let's tackle your first question: What high-calorie, easy access foods would be a healthier choice for you compared to your typical grab for boxes of graham crackers and vanilla wafers?

Not surprisingly, you might try reaching for fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Incidentally, the fiber in these foods will make you feel fuller, which may mean you won't have to reach for another snack as quickly. Healthy fats are a good pick, too, because they are of high energy density. That is, a little bit goes a long way. Try foods such as avocados, nuts and nut butters, seeds, flax, or olive oil. Eat a variety of fruits, whether they are fresh, frozen, dried, or canned. Other recommended foods include darker veggies such as spinach, kale, collards, or broccoli. Beans are a great source of sugar, fiber, and protein, and they fill you up. For whole grains, look for brown rice, 100% whole wheat breads, whole grain cereals, and whole wheat pastas.

There's another concern in terms of your sugar consumption. Too much of one particular type of sugar, fructose, can have more dramatic health consequences. Fructose is found in regular sugar (which is half glucose, half fructose), and it is found in its most concentrated form in corn syrup (the snack foods you mentioned contain this type of sugar). Fructose is not metabolized the same way as other sugars, such as glucose. Glucose is metabolized by all the cells in your body, but fructose is processed only in the liver. When large amounts of fructose hit the liver quickly, the liver starts converting the fructose to fat and stores it in the liver as fatty deposits. This could lead to insulin resistance, which in turn puts stress on your pancreas to produce more and more insulin in order to overcome the cellular resistance. This can lead to pancreatic exhaustion, and is the main cause of type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance also contributes to obesity and increases levels of LDL, or "bad" cholesterol. It is also notable that, while being overweight is linked to the fatty liver deposits and insulin resistance, there are many lean people who have this same syndrome. You mentioned your father is a borderline diabetic, which may mean that you could be at increased risk for diabetes, as well.

Thus, it is important to choose your sugary foods wisely. The healthiest sugar choices are those foods which are naturally sweetened and contain no added sugar. Read your labels. On an ingredient list, ingredients are listed in order of amount by weight from most to least, so when an ingredient occurs early on in the list, you can expect there is a lot of it in the food. Added sugars may appear in a list as: anything that ends in "ose" (e.g. fructose, glucose, lactose), corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, invert corn syrup, corn sweetener, malt syrup, maple syrup, fruit juice concentrates, honey, brown sugar, or molasses. In the western diet, the most commonly consumed added sugar foods are: sodas, candy, cookies, cake, pies, fruit drinks (like punch and fruit cocktail), ice cream, and sweetened grains (e.g. waffles and pancakes). The good news is that once you start cutting back on the amount of sugar you consume, you may find that you crave it less. Decreasing your sugar intake will decrease your risks for developing diabetes and cavities, for sure, and possibly other chronic diseases that are less of an issue now as a young person, but may become a concern as you get older.

Lastly, your insatiable sugar appetite may be worth a trip to your health care provider. Sometimes, such an appetite and high metabolism may be indicators of another health issue, such as hyperthyroid, an autoimmune condition in which too much thyroid hormone is produced. If you are a Columbia student, you make an appointment using Open Communicator.

 Best of luck in fulfilling the needs of both your sweet tooth and your body.

Alice

Fish-less omega-3 fatty acids

Dear Reader,

Yes, there certainly are! Good sources include:

  • Canola and olive oils.
  • Walnuts.
  • Ground flaxseed.
  • Tofu.
  • Leafy green veggies.

There are three main types of omega-3s. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are mainly found in fish, whereas alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found elsewhere. Good sources of ALA include vegetable oils (such as soybean or canola), nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds and flaxseed oil, and leafy vegetables (like kale, spinach, and Brussels sprouts). You could try adding some walnuts and flaxseed into your oatmeal, yogurt, or smoothie, and use vegetable oil for cooking or in a salad dressing to top off a leafy veggie. Try using canola oil to make a vegetable stir fry with tofu. Tahini, which is made with sesame seeds, is a great source of omega-3s and can be used to make sauces and dips, such as hummus. For more information about nutrition, check out the Get Balanced Guide to Healthier Eating as well as the Alice! Health Promotion Nutrition Initiatives.

Omega-3s fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that your body needs for numerous body functions, such as controlling blood clotting and normal brain function. Omega-3s have been shown to help prevent heart disease and possibly stroke, may help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis due to anti-inflammatory properties, and could be protective against certain types of cancer and other conditions.

There is some debate on whether sources of ALA carry the same benefits as fish sources of EPA and DHA. The body converts ALA into EPA and DHA, but not everyone’s body does this well. If you’re not averse to making an exception to your vegetarianism for fish oil, you can consider taking a fish oil supplement and might want to speak with your health provider or a nutritionist before doing so. For questions about your specific individual nutritional needs, Columbia students can make an appointment with Medical Services on the Morningside Campus or Student Health at the Medical Center to speak with a healthcare provider or nutritionist.

Happy eating!

Alice

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