Optimal Nutrition

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It's Greek (yogurt) to me!

Dear It’s Greek to me,

Greek, or strained, yogurt seems to be making all the top healthy food lists and taking up ever more space on the grocery store shelves lately. It’s great that you’re skeptical of what could feel like a healthy food fad. While yogurt is generally considered to be a healthy food and can be part of a healthful diet, Greek yogurt does have an edge over the regular stuff.

Greek yogurt differs from normal yogurt in that liquid whey is strained out of the yogurt to give it a tangier taste and richer, creamier texture. But how different is Greek yogurt from regular yogurt? Not so different, it turns out. In fact, Greek yogurt can actually be made from regular yogurt — all that is involved is placing regular yogurt on a cheese cloth and letting some of the liquid whey drain out into a container below it. Greek yogurt has a similar nutritional profile as regular yogurt in terms of being a good source of protein, calcium, phosphorus, riboflavin (vitamin B2), thiamin (vitamin B1), and vitamin B12, as well as of folate, niacin, magnesium and zinc. Any type of yogurt that contains probiotics (live bacterial cultures) is associated with a number of possible health benefits, such as aiding digestion, having antidiarrheal properties, combatting carcinogens, regulating gut environment, alleviating irritable bowel syndrome, and boosting immune response. 

So from where does Greek yogurt’s slight edge over regular yogurt originate? Greek yogurt has a higher protein and lower complex carbohydrate content than normal yogurt, as the process of making Greek yogurt allows some of the sugars in the yogurt to be strained out in the whey-containing liquid. However, check the label on what you bought — some varieties have added sweeteners, resulting in higher sugar levels. Also, keep the fat content in mind. Though many non-fat varieties of Greek yogurt are now available, fuller fat varieties can pack in the saturated fat.  

If you like the taste and texture, then consider buying it again next week. The consumption of high protein snacks (Greek yogurt is considered to be an excellent choice) has been linked to reduced appetite, increased feelings of fullness and less frequent and heavy meals, compared to not snacking and to consuming regular varieties of yogurt. There are many uses for Greek yogurt besides as a snack. You could try Greek yogurt as a low-fat replacement for sour cream, in cooking, or as a salad dressing. Try swapping it for mayonnaise on a sandwich or in a dish like egg salad. Mixed with seasonings like garlic or dill, it can be made into a unique dip for veggies. Throw some fruit and granola on it for breakfast.

Hope you understand Greek (yogurt) a bit better now!


One fish, too much fish, how much fish?

Dear Reader,

This is a simple question for which there is no simple answer! How often you should eat fish depends on a variety of factors, including your specific health concerns, the type of fish you like to eat, how much you weigh, whether you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, and how much fish you eat per sitting. In addition to being quite tasty, fish can have many nutritional benefits, including being low in cholesterol, a good source of protein, and chock full of Omega-3 fatty acids. The American Heart Association even recommends eating a variety of fish, preferably oily fish (e.g., salmon, tuna, herring, etc.), at least twice a week.

Most people can eat fish without being concerned, but pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children should be more careful. Nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of methylmercury, a type of mercury that can be harmful for pregnant women and young children. Mercury is present in both freshwater and oceans throughout the world as a result of industrial pollution. Generally speaking, older fish, larger fish, and fish that eat other fish will have accumulated the most mercury, thus there is lots of variation in mercury levels. There are three primary factors to monitor if you are trying to lower your consumption of mercury. These include the type of fish, the frequency you eat it, and the amount you eat per meal.

Some good general guidelines for fish consumption:

  • Eat fish that are lower in mercury. These include anchovies, clams, oysters, herring, tilapia, whiting, shrimp, sardines, salmon (in some cases), and a few others.
  • Eat less fish that are higher in mercury. These include tuna (especially steaks and sushi), Chilean Sea Bass, sharks, swordfish, eel, halibut, and orange roughy.
  • Eat a variety of fish. As an alternative to completely cutting high mercury fish out of your diet, simply eating a variety will make it more likely that some of the fish you consume is of the lower mercury variety.
  • Eat smaller (or fewer) servings of fish. Eating fish less frequently and eating smaller amounts will help keep mercury levels in check.

To get a more precise calculation of how often you should eat fish, check out the National Resources Defense Council's Mercury Contamination in Fish - Consumer Guide to Mercury in Fish. Other helpful resources include the New York City Department of Health – Mercury and Fish, the Environmental Protection Agency, and New Yorkers can check out New York State Fish Advisories.

If you are still concerned about the amount of fish you should include in your diet and if there are any restrictions based upon your individual health needs, you should make an appointment with your primary care provider or a registered dietitian to discuss. Columbia students on the Morningside campus can make an appointment at Medical Services using Open Communicator or by calling 212-854-2284. Columbia students at the Medical Center can make an appointment with Student Health or by calling 212-305-3400. 

Bon appétit!


Fruits and veggies on a budget. How do I avoid waste?

Dear Berry Healthy,

Eating healthily on a budget, when you can only get to the grocery store once a week, can be tricky. But fruits and veggies don’t have to break the bank or spoil on the shelf before you can take advantage of their nutrients! There’s a combination of strategies that can help. Buying fruits and vegetables that are low cost and nutritious combined with smart shopping habits, strategic meal planning, and effective storage can prevent waste. Here are some tips on how to more easily incorporate the good stuff into your diet and budget…

Before you go to the store:

  • Consider your options for shopping since a larger grocery store may have more options and lower costs than a nearby convenience store
  • Use coupons and monitor ads for what’s on sale
  • Know what’s in season to ensure freshness
  • Have a snack since it’s easier to stick to a budget at the grocery store on a full stomach

At the store:

  • Look for things that are on sale and buy in bulk to cut prices
  • Don’t buy single servings or pre-cut product, as this can cost much more than whole fruits and vegetables
  • Try hardy fruits like apples, bananas, pears, nectarines, and watermelon
  • Look for lasting vegetables like carrots, spinach, broccoli, collards, mustard greens, kale, potatoes, cabbage, and onions
  • Try frozen, especially for berries
  • Canned fruits and vegetables will last a long time, but choose those with no added salt or sugar

At home: 

  • Plan your meals to use up your purchases in a given week
  • Cook enough for multiple meals and freeze the leftovers
  • Fruit that is about to turn or purchased in bulk can be cut and frozen for smoothies or baking
  • Veggies on the way out can be frozen or made into soup
  • Store produce appropriately

List adapted from 30 Ways in 30 Days to Stretch Your Fruit & Vegetable Budget from the CDC.

This last point on prolonging the shelf life of produce varies wildly from item to item. Some veggies like to be damp (such as broccoli, dark leafy greens, and carrots), while others don’t like to get wet (onions). Some prefer the fridge (spinach), while others just need a cool, dry place (potatoes, winter squash). Remove or loosen any bands or twist ties from greens to let them breathe, and remove greens from items like turnips, radishes, and beets, as they draw moisture from the roots. Most fruits do well in a cool place on the counter, and shouldn’t be washed until you’re going to eat them, as added moisture encourages mold. You can ask your local grocer or take a look at how produce are presented in the store to get an idea of how produce like their environment. You can also check out get balanced! resources for additional information.

Hope these tips gave you some berry good ideas!


March 13, 2014

I will also cut up and freeze and fruit that is going bad, so I can use it in smoothies or baking later. Same would work for vegetables. I also have a dehydrator which I much prefer to freezing goods...
I will also cut up and freeze and fruit that is going bad, so I can use it in smoothies or baking later. Same would work for vegetables. I also have a dehydrator which I much prefer to freezing goods - could be an investment. :)

April 16, 2013

Try making a smoothie with the ripe fruits!
Try making a smoothie with the ripe fruits!

Forgetting to eat

Dear Really, I’m Not Hungry,

On the one hand, your body knows best. That is, taking cues and signals from your body about when to eat (and when to stop eating) is a surefire way to provide your body with what it needs — both in terms of quality and quantity.  On the other hand, each body needs a minimum amount of fuel to run efficiently and at its highest potential. Based on your question, it sounds as though you may not be getting the minimum amount of fuel for your body. For most people, hunger is the number one reminder that they need to eat. To boost your hunger and appetite, you might want to consider trying the following tips:

  • Exercise daily. At least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity each day has been shown to relieve stress, increase energy, and promote a healthy appetite.
  • Add variety to your regular diet. Sometimes even the foods you enjoy can start to seem boring. Experimenting with new herbs and spices in addition to new foods might be a great way to get excited about eating.

Sometimes, however, poor appetite may be indicative of an underlying health issue.  Research has shown that a loss of appetite can be associated with old age, as well as illness and even pregnancy. Illnesses as serious as cancer and as simple as the common cold are all known to decrease appetite. But it’s not always physical: Mental health issues such as depression or anxiety can affect your appetite as well. A few questions to consider: Have you always had a low appetite? Is under-eating something new for you? If so, does this change in appetite or eating habits correlate with any other events or issues going on in your life? If this is a fairly new phenomenon or sudden change, you may want to speak to a health care provider to rule out any underlying issues. Columbia students can log on to Open Communicator to make an appointment with either a medical provider or Registered Dietician at Medical Services.

In the meantime, you can check out What to eat? for an overview of…well, what to eat. Generally, nutrition experts believe that the basis for a good diet is exercise, combined with eating lots colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins such as poultry, fish, beans and eggs.  It is advised that sugary drinks, red meats (beef, pork, lamb), processed meats (bacon, deli meats), and refined grains (white potatoes, white bread, white rice) as well as alcohol be consumed in moderation. Hope this advice whets your apetite!


What's a "natural" flavor?

Dear Puzzled Foodie,

Seeing the words “natural flavors” on a food label can be confusing. In this case, the first thing to understand is that natural flavors are listed on the label because they have been added to the food. That is, it's not natural to whatever food product you are consuming. Most processed foods, in fact, have flavors (either natural, artificial, or both) added to them during the production process. Flavors are made by “flavorists” in a laboratory, either by blending natural or synthetic chemicals together to enhance taste. Blending chemicals derived from a natural source, such as a plant or animal product, makes natural flavors. Combining synthetic (human-made) chemicals, on the other hand, makes artificial flavors. Therefore, the primary difference between natural and artificial flavorings is in the origin of the chemicals used to produce their tastes.

While the primary chemicals ingested with natural and artificial flavoring may be the same, a big difference between the two types of flavors relates to cost. The search for "natural" sources of chemicals often requires that a manufacturer go to great lengths to obtain a given chemical. Even though this natural chemical may be chemically identical to the version made in a flavorist’s laboratory, it is much more expensive than the synthetic alternative. In the end, natural flavors are neither better in quality nor healthier than their more cost-effective artificial counterparts. In addition, the source of a natural flavor may not match what the label says. Raspberry flavor doesn’t have to come from raspberries, for example.

Despite the natural origins of natural flavors, food companies are not required to disclose the chemicals used to create the flavor. In fact, a flavor could be the result of blending hundreds of unique chemicals. As a consumer, you may want to know what chemicals you are ingesting. If you are interested in getting the facts, you may be able to contact the food company directly. Perhaps they can specify exactly what flavorings are on the ingredient lists. On the other hand, if you are looking to avoid both natural and artificial flavors completely, it is best to avoid processed foods. You can check ingredient lists and packaging for any sign of “natural” or “artificial flavors."

Hope this information leaves your taste buds tingling!


Diet soda vs. water for a workout: And the winner is...

Dear Thirsty,

On your marks, get set, go! Staying hydrated while you’re hitting the gym (or the pavement) is extremely important for an active body. While diet soda may boast zero calories and zero sugar, it is not the Holy Grail to achieving a healthy level of hydration. Diet soda does hydrate the body, but not as well as water. Soaking up the following information can help you stick to water and stay hydrated on the field:

  • Some diet sodas contain caffeine, which has mild diuretic properties and can increase urination. This decreases the amount of water available to the body — quite detrimental if you’re trying to quench your thirst. Caffeine also increases stomach acid levels, which can cause stomach irritation while you are exercising. Lastly, caffeine is addictive and in large quantities can cause insomnia, jitteriness, headaches, anxiety disorders, and fatigue.
  • Diet sodas contain significant amounts of sodium, which draws water out of the body's cells and can contribute to dehydration.
  • Sugary sweet sodas may cause your brain to crave other sweets — not ideal if you’re exercising for health and fitness. In a study done on rodents, artificial sweetener caused the animals to steadily increase their calorie consumption.
  • Both carbonic acid and phosphoric acid are commonly found in sodas. As a result, drinking too much of the bubbly can corrode the enamel of your teeth.

While the FDA has concluded that aspartame is safe for consumption, it has been linked to a number of side effects such as dizziness, migraines, memory loss, diarrhea, and mood swings. If you are concerned about the safety of aspartame, you can always check the labels of the foods and drinks before you buy them. You may also want to consider discussing any concerns with a health care provider, who may be able to suggest other sweetening alternatives. For example, you can give your water a little pizzazz by adding a wedge of lime or lemon.

The bottom line is that water is the best (and cheapest!) hydrator on the market. Moreover, decreasing on your diet soda consumption may be beneficial to your health as well. Check out the related Q&As below for more information. For tips on cutting down, check out Getting off colas, sodas, pop, fiz...oh, whatever! Drink up and keep moving!


Chia seeds and nutrition

Dear Reader,

Looking for something that will help you grow as big as a “chia pet?” Chia seeds are edible seeds that come from the desert plant Salvia hispanica, which is grown in Mexico and dates back to Mayan and Aztec cultures. "Chia" means strength, and folklore has it that these cultures used the tiny black and white seeds as an energy booster. Chia seeds are packed with nutrients, and therefore thought to be a healthy addition to your diet. In order to get the nutritional benefits, it is generally recommended to eat 20 grams of chia seeds (a little bit under two tablespoons), twice per day. However, the appropriate amount of chia seeds depends on several factors such as user's age, health, and several other conditions.

Chia seeds contain omega-3 fatty acids, carbohydrates, protein, fiber, antioxidants, and calcium. One ounce (about two tablespoons) contains 139 calories, 4 g of protein, 9 g of fat, 12 g of carbohydrates, 11 g of fiber, plus vitamins and minerals. Chia seeds can be easily added to foods, drinks, and baked goods. They can also be mixed with water and made into a gel.

So what’s all the hype? People eat chia seeds for diabetes, high blood pressure, and to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. However, there is currently no good evidence to support chia consumption for these uses. People have also tried using chia seeds as a weight loss aid, as the high fiber content is thought to suppress appetite and ultimately help with weight loss. There’s not much support for this claim.  One study found that eating chia seeds had no effects on body weight, body fat, or changes in appetite over a 12-week period. However, studies have shown that a particular variety of chia seeds, marketed under Salba, can reduce certain risk factors for heart disease such as blood pressure, clotting factors, and inflammation.

With all natural supplements come precautions. If you have food allergies (especially to sesame or mustard seeds) or are on high blood pressure medications or blood thinners, ask your healthcare provider before adding chia to your diet. Also, eating chia seeds is not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women, as little is known about the risks. Finally, chia seeds are high in alpha-linolenic acid, which in high doses may increase the risk of prostate cancer.  

May your new seeds of knowledge grow into a happy and healthy plant!


Sea salt

Dear Reader,

Who knew the selection of salts could be so satiating? Kosher salt, sea salt, and table (regular) salt all have the same basic nutritional value, despite the fact that sea salt is often marketed as the more natural or healthier choice. In other words, the chemical compositions of various types of salts are all 40 percent sodium and 60 percent chloride. Therefore, the health effects of the three types of salt are generally the same. The differences between these three varieties are mostly limited to taste, texture, and granule size.

Kosher salt tends to be larger in grain size. As a result, kosher salt may have less sodium per teaspoon than regular table salt. Kosher salt contains no preservatives, and can be derived from either seawater or underground sources. The name “kosher” comes from the koshering process performed on the salt. Kosher salt is particularly good for preserving foods because its large crystals draw moisture out of meats and other foods more effectively than other salts.

True to its namesake, sea salt is derived from seawater. While sea salt may not be larger in grain size than table salt, it contains more minerals due to its deep-sea origins. This is because sea salt is harvested from evaporated seawater and receives little or no processing. These minerals may slightly flavor and color the salt. Sea salts may contain less sodium per teaspoon than table salt. Here’s a tip: it might not be worth forking out extra money for sea salt if you’re going to cook or dissolve it in liquid, as this may cause it to lose its unique flavor.

Regular table salt is mined from underground salt deposits, and includes a small portion of calcium silicate, an anti-caking agent added to prevent clumping. It possesses very fine crystals and a sharp taste. Because of its fine grain, a single teaspoon of table salt contains more salt than a tablespoon of kosher or sea salt.

Your body needs only a very tiny amount of salt to stay healthy. Most people ingest too much salt, mostly from eating processed foods. If you are concerned about the effects of salt on high blood pressure, the following tips can help you limit your sodium intake:

  • Go light on the saltshaker! Try to refrain from adding a lot of salt to your food.
  • Pay attention to the ingredients in processed foods, which can be chock full of salt. Scan the ingredients for keywords such as soda, sodium, or the symbol “Na”.
  • Spice up your food — in a different way! Instead of adding salt, try using herbs (fresh or dried) or spices.

So there you have it. Kosher salt, sea salt, and table salt all contain the same basic nutritional values. As for any other information you hear regarding the topic at hand — take it with a grain of salt!


Vitamin D deficiency

Dear Reader,

Ahh, good ‘ole vitamin D — one of the most versatile and important vitamins. When combined with calcium, vitamin D promotes calcium absorption, helps maintain bone health, and is crucial for bone growth and remodeling. Adequate levels of vitamin D can prevent rickets in children and help protect adults from osteoporosis. Vitamin D is also important for regulation of cell growth, neuromuscular and immune function, and reduction of inflammation. Many genes that regulate cell growth, differentiation, and cell life cycle are also regulated in part by vitamin D.

The 25-hydroxy vitamin D test is currently the most accurate way to measure a person’s vitamin D level. Normal levels of vitamin D range between 30 and 74 ng/mL, and levels below 12 ng/mL are considered high risk for vitamin D deficiency. Speaking with your health care provider may help you better understand your test results. Extremely low levels of vitamin D can cause bones to become thin, brittle, or misshapen. Vitamin D deficiency is also associated with an elevated risk of cancers of the colon, breast, and prostate; high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease; osteoarthritis; and immune-system abnormalities.

Those who cannot get adequate sun exposure may consider the use of a vitamin D supplement. People with serious deficiencies may be prescribed weekly doses of up to 50,000 units (I.U.) until their levels are corrected. It appears that at nutritional doses, D2 and D3 supplements are equally effective. At high doses though, D3 may be more effective than D2. Speaking with your health care provider again can help you decide which supplement is best for you. The current recommended intake of vitamin D, as established by the Institute of Medicine, is as follows:

  • 200 I.U. (5 micrograms, or 0.005 mg) per day from birth to age 50 years old
  • 400 I.U. per day for adults ages 50 to 70 years old
  • 600 I.U. for adults older than 70 years old
  • 1000-2000 I.U. for certain populations, such as sun-deprived individuals, pregnant and lactating women

Aside from vitamin D supplements, most people obtain the recommended amount through exposure to UVB rays in sunlight. Researchers have found that exposure to the sun without sunscreen (except on your face, of course!) between 5 and 30 minutes per day, at least twice per week, can lead to sufficient vitamin D production. Remember though, too much UV exposure can increase your risk of skin cancer. If you’ve already got your vitamin D time covered, cover up your body with adequate clothing and sunscreen.

Unfortunately, very few foods in nature contain vitamin D. Most vitamin D in the American diet comes from fortified foods such as cereal or milk. For example, cow’s milk in the U.S. is fortified with 100 I.U. per cup. Fatty fish and fish liver oils are also good natural sources. Small amounts of vitamin D may also be found in beef liver, cheese, egg yolks, and some types of mushrooms.

It is important to be aware that certain medications can impair the body’s ability to absorb and metabolize vitamin D. For example, corticosteroids (such as prednisone) can reduce calcium absorption and impair vitamin D metabolism. Both phenobarbital and phenytoin (sold as Dilantin), used in preventing and controlling epileptic seizures, increase the metabolism of vitamin D to inactive compounds and reduce calcium absorption. Additionally, the cholesterol drug cholestyramine (sold under Questran, LoCholest, and Prevalite) can reduce the absorption of vitamin D and other fat-soluble vitamins. Make sure your doctor knows if you are taking any other medications. If you are a Columbia student, you can make an appointment with a registered dietitian by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).

Here’s to happy bodies and healthy vitamin D levels!


Cooking for partners with different nutritional needs

Dear the Pounds Thief,

Kudos to both of you for trying to maintain healthy eating patterns during the major life transition of moving in together! Your question seems to indicate that you two have different nutritional needs, but not wildly different diets. The good news is that your nutritional needs may not be as different as you think; what will vary more are you daily caloric requirements. The other good news is that partners who have very different diets move in together all the time: vegans with carnivorous dairy lovers, gluten-free and gluten-loving people, diabetics with non-diabetics, pescatarians with vegetarians. You get the idea. So you’re in good company as you try to figure this all out.

Two primary factors determine one’s caloric needs: body size and activity level. Sedentary people (regardless of gender) need about 13 calories per pound of body weight per day. Moderately active people need about 16 calories for every pound per day, and very active people should boost that amount to about 18. People tend to over-estimate how much protein they need. As a general rule, people of any activity level and gender and size need only 15 percent of their daily calories to be from proteins. Excess protein can decrease calcium absorption and cause calcium to be lost in the urine. Excess protein is also stored as fat, so it can contribute to weight gain from fat, not only muscle. Excess protein can also cause kidney stones. Typically 6-8 ounces of meat will cover it, less if you are eating other protein rich foods like beans and some cheeses.

Approximately 45-65 percent of your daily calories should be from carbohydrates. The more fiber in those sources, the better. It’s also great if your carbohydrates are coming from dark leafy greens like kale and spinach, because these will also have lots of iron and B vitamins.

Fat consumption should be below 30-35 percent of your total caloric intake (or 20-25 percent if weight loss is a concern). Try to avoid trans fats (found in some types of margarine, fried foods at restaurants, and store-bought snacks). And try to have more mono-unsaturated fats (avocadoes, olive oil, flax, fish) then saturated fats (found in dairy, vegetable oil, and meats).

Couples with different caloric or dietary needs may need to do a bit more planning and be more intentional about their menus than others. There is no rule that says you have to eat exactly the same items at the same time and in the same amounts. Here are some tips to help with meal times:

  • If you’re worried about portion control, try to be mindful of how much you put on your plate at a time. People often feel compelled to finish what’s on their plate, even if they are no longer hungry. Try loading your plate with less and then going back for more if you’re still hungry.
  • Try to keep fewer unhealthy snacks in the house. If they aren’t there, you’re less likely to consume the “empty calories” from these snacks when you get hungry.
  • Speaking of snacks, do you snack throughout the day? If not, consider trying it! People will eat less at meal times if they have been snacking some throughout the day. This also is easier on your metabolism and digestive system. Try keeping lots of healthy snacks around: whole grain breads, yogurt, granola, fruit, carrots, raisins, walnuts, and celery are all good, healthy, lean yet filling snack choices that will put a dent in your appetite by dinner.
  • Along these same lines, don’t skip meals! This will make you hungrier by dinner and that’s when people are most likely to eat more than needed.
  • Buy foods you both like and alternate nights cooking for each other. On the night your partner cooks for you, eat the foods you most prefer. If it is not quite enough for him, perhaps he can cook up a side dish to give him a little extra. On the night you cook for him, make him a meal he loves. If he doesn’t want veggies, cook up a side of veggies for yourself. This can be a great way to honor each other’s dietary preferences.
  • Do you like cooking together? Consider taking a cooking class or checking out some recipes online that might incorporate food ingredients that you both would enjoy. Make it a fun project of discovery.

As you noted, having different activity levels and different dietary needs in the same household can be a source of stress. But, working through and honoring these differences can also strengthen a relationship. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke said: “Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them, which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.”

Here’s to love and food,


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