Props to you for wanting to donate blood! Alas, isn't it iron(ic) that one of the foods with higher iron content also may contain an iron absorption inhibitor? It's one thing to worry about getting enough iron through your food sources, but a whole other thing to worry about whether that iron is actually being absorbed. Boosting your hemoglobin by upping your iron intake shouldn't be too tricky, but know that there are a number of possible causes for low hemoglobin — being low on iron is only one cause (more on that later).
Let's discuss the raisin bran question first. Phytic acid is often found in foods that contain whole grains, including some types of raisin bran. In large enough quantities, phytic acid can inhibit your body's iron absorption. This is annoying since these foods may also be high in iron. In addition to iron absorption inhibitors, there are also substances that aid in iron absorption. The primary is vitamin C, which is often also found in raisin bran. Your best bet is to check food labels so you know when you are consuming foods that contain phytic acid (and also whether it contains a substance such as vitamin C, which will help you absorb iron). If food products contain iron and phytic acid, chances are you'll still likely get at least some iron benefit from them (especially if that food contains vitamin C, too); however, it's wise to have additional sources or iron other than raisin bran. Another iron absorption inhibitor is tannic acid, which is often found in red wine, coffee, some teas, chocolate, and some sodas.
So what does all this mean? Diversified food sources of iron will be your best bet in ensuring that you meet your recommended daily allowance, but there's no harm in making raisin bran one of those sources. Check out the Q&A's below for more information on iron, how much you need, and getting enough of it through your diet.
Now, are you sure low iron is the cause of your low hemoglobin? There are several other possible causes. Cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver is one cause. Some common causes of cirrhosis include alcohol abuse, hepatitis B or C, cystic fibrosis, and some parasites caused by chronic liver damage. These conditions, as well as the cirrhosis itself, would likely be accompanied by additional symptoms, such as fatigue, nausea, weight loss, and/or easy bruising.
Other causes can include certain cancers of the blood (e.g. leukemia, multiple Myeloma) or of the lymphatic system (e.g. Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma), enlarged spleen (splenomeglamy), or vasculitis (inflammation of blood vessels caused by an autoimmune response of various origins). Though anemia and iron deficiency are common causes of low hemoglobin, it may be worth a trip to your health care provider to rule out these other causes.
Happy hemoglobin boosting!
Dear A Sip of Calm,
Can we actually find relaxation in a can? Seems like it could be a great idea, unfortunately, at this point in time, it's just too good to be true. Just like herbal supplements, the FDA does not require companies manufacturing the "relaxation beverages" to prove their claims or standardize their ingredients. As such, there is no conclusive scientific evidence that any of these products are safe and effective. What little research has been done has shown that many compounds in these drinks, such as 5-HTP and melatonin, degrade in water. Other ingredients such as GABA, cannot cross the blood-brain barrier so are completely ineffective. One study even tested five popular brands and found that many of the ingredients listed were barely even present in the drinks themselves!
Two popular ingredients in relaxation beverages that have been studied are valerian and kava and the news is not good. Valerian can cause dependency if taken regularly while kava has been shown to cause liver damage. These types of ingredients can also interact with medications such as Allegra or benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, Atvian, etc.) or even with Tylenol and cause serious health problems.
What's your best bet for relaxation? For starters, maintaining a proper diet, exercising, and trying to keep a regular sleep schedule can contribute to feelings of relaxation. You may also want to try meditation and/or yoga.
In the end, it seems as if nothing beats a glass of warm milk or hot (decaf) tea to unwind in the evening.
Dear Long Cooker,
Whether you’re an avid chef or a microwave maven, it is important to know that overcooking can deplete the amount of vitamins and minerals in foods. If you are cooking your pasta and beans for as long as you say, you are most likely losing some of their nutritional value. Overcooking destroys bonds between molecules, significantly depleting the nutritional value. For example, overcooking can destroy amino acids and many of the B vitamins, such as Vitamins B-1 and B-5. These vitamins are important for metabolism and energy production.
Generally, shorter cooking time retains more nutrition in a food. Here are a few basic cooking guidelines for your pasta and beans:
Beans, peas, and lentils (members of the legume family) are low in fat and high in fiber, making them a healthy part of your diet. Cooking your beans properly can make them a nutritious and delicious addition to a meal. Dried beans should be soaked overnight in fresh water. They are then cooked for 1-3 hours, depending on the variety of bean. This is standard preparation, and beans cooked in this manner are full of nutrients.
Pasta is a complex carbohydrate, with more fiber and a lower glycemic index than simple sugars. Overcooking pasta can strip it of its fiber content. Most pasta only needs to be boiled between 5 and 15 minutes, depending on the cut of the noodle. Overcooking pasta will only add to the loss of vitamins (especially water-soluble B vitamins) and minerals that occurs when you cook it. Another tip: try not to rinse cooked grains and pasta, as this causes further loss of nutrients.
The style of cooking plays an important role in the overall nutrition of food as well. Whether fresh, steamed, baked, grilled, boiled, or fried, how food is prepared can modify the nutritional content. For instance, boiling leeches more nutrients out of vegetables and beans than baking, as many of the vitamins in vegetables are water-soluble. Steaming and microwaving your food can help maintain the most nutrients.
While it appears that androstenedione has helped some people (a few prominent athletes included) increase their muscle mass and recover more quickly from injury, there is no scientific research supporting these results. In order to help you decide whether such nutritional supplements are right for you, let’s first take a look at androstenedione.
Androstenedione is a direct precursor hormone to testosterone and other hormones including one type of estrogen. It is converted from cholesterol, as are all other steroid hormones. Specific enzymes and hormones, among other things, must be present and ready to work for these conversions to take place. For instance, luteinizing hormone, produced and released by the pituitary gland, plays a pivotal role in converting androstenedione to testosterone. Simply introducing extra androstenedione to your system does not automatically indicate that all of the necessary players will be there to produce testosterone or improve the productivity of your workout.
About sixty years ago, when androstenedione was first synthesized, it was shown to have both androgenic (male hormone-like) and anabolic steroid-like properties. The anabolic effects were considerably less than those of testosterone. Subsequent research found that testosterone levels rose after inhalation of androstenedione, but remained elevated for only a couple of hours, with peak levels lasting a few short minutes.
Beyond these cursory early studies, rigorous studies have come to two broad conclusions about androstenedione. First, despite increasing testosterone levels for those with low baseline testosterone levels such as women and older men, androstenedione has not been shown to increase the testosterone levels of young men or to improve the effectiveness of their exercise regiments aimed at building muscle.
What side effects can you expect from androstenedione? No one knows for sure. Androstenedione falls under the category of steroid hormones, which are known to have androgenic and anabolic properties. Therefore, androstenedione may produce side effects similar to those of testosterone-based anabolic steroids. The most dangerous of these side effects is the increased risk for cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, depression, psychoses, and even extreme aggression. There are also gender-specific effects. For men, these include shrinking testes, increased hair loss, enlarged breasts, and possible sterility. Women may experience side effects such as shrinking breasts and uterus, enlarged clitoris, irregular menstruation, increased facial and body hair growth, and a deepening voice. In fact, due to many potential negative health hazards, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has prohibited the sale of over-the-counter androstenedione and similar steroid-like dietary substances.
Is it safe? Safety can be difficult to determine when you don't really know what you're dealing with. Is it worth the risk? That's for you to decide. Before you begin taking any dietary supplements you may want to speak with your healthcare provider. S/he can answer your questions and give you more detailed information. Columbia students might want to consider making an appointment at Medical Services by calling x4-2284 or online using Open Communicator. Students on the Medical Center campus can contact the Student Health Service.
Trying to make sense of all the vitamin and mineral supplements on the pharmacy shelves may make you feel stuck between a rock and a hard place! Before you swallow any information, it is important to know that both ionic minerals and colloidal minerals have a lot of dubious marketing and advertising surrounding them. Manufacturers of colloidal and ionic supplements may make a variety of claims about their products — many of which are not confirmed by scientific research. Moreover, the body doesn’t need a whole lot of minerals; fewer than 20 have been judged to be essential to your health.
A colloid is a mixture in which particles are suspended in a liquid or a gas. Colloidal minerals come from humic shale deposits, primarily from Emery County, Utah. After collection, the shale is crushed and placed in water so that the minerals can enter the solution. Colloidal mineral distributors stress the “naturalness” of their product and have made claims about improving conditions associated with certain diseases, a practice judged to be illegal by the FDA. In addition, some advertisements state that colloidal supplements contain 75 minerals, many of which have not been proven to be beneficial to health (such as platinum, gold, and silver).
Ionic mineral distributors state that colloidal minerals have too large of a particle size to be absorbed by the body. Therefore, ionic minerals (named after their supposed positively and negatively charged molecules) were created to have the “correct electrical charge” and therefore lead to higher levels of absorption by the body. Although these supplements may actually lead to greater absorption, it is important to remember that there are various other conditions that must be present in the body in order for this to happen.
In reality, the body only needs minerals in trace amounts. Excessive dosages of minerals can actually be toxic. Therefore, before you experiment with any vitamin or mineral supplements, you may want to speak with your health care provider. A provider can help you sort out fact from fiction, so you can make an informed decision and avoid products that may be harmful or simply ineffective. In certain cases, you may be better off wearing these minerals than ingesting them!
December 11, 2012520002
There is so much nutrition information available from a host of different sources and it’s not hard to see why confusion can arise. You may have access to information published in scientific journals, which are studies that have been critiqued by nutrition experts. At the other end of the spectrum, some sources such as websites and corporate advertisements are created with the intention of boosting sales of the latest diet book or food product. In order to increase the chances of finding valid nutrition information, it's important to identify, use, and refer back to sources you trust. Additionally, when comparing information from multiple sources it is very important to make sure you are comparing exactly the same thing (same serving size, same source, etc).
When gathering information online, it is important to determine who sponsors the site, how often it is updated, the sources for information, and if advertising is involved (or influences content). As an example; Go Ask Alice! is sponsored by Columbia University, content is updated daily (all pages have an update date listed), the sources are described (see below), and the site is advertising free (learn about our no ad policy).
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is generally the most reliable source of nutrition and food-related information for the general public in the United States. The dietary guidelines can be found at their MyPlate website where you can also find sample menus and recipes, a food tracker, BMI calculator, as well as several other useful health and food-related tools.
The USDA also has a National Nutrient Database, which is a reliable source for nutrient values for foods. Frequently, this site is accessed by nutrition researchers and developers of nutrient analysis programs. The National Nutrient Database site is user friendly enough that even regular people will be able to do a food search during her/his first visit to the site. Even the National Nutrient Database site, however, can be confusing. For example, it will generate conflicting numbers for nutrients in products such as milk, which comes in a number of varieties. For example, cow's milk provides 8 grams of protein per 8 ounces, evaporated skim milk provides 19 grams, and soy milk, 3 grams. The lesson learned here is to check the details of the food you searched for if the results seem different. For example, a search for milk could yield information on both coconut milk and cow's milk.
The MyPlate SuperTracker and the Nutrient Analysis Tool (NAT) are comprehensive online programs that can be used to analyze not just one food, but an entire day of food intake. They show a comparison of the analysis to your daily nutrient needs. The food lists in these programs come from the USDA National Nutrient Database, and nutrient needs are based on the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA).
RDAs are amounts of nutrients that, if consumed on a daily basis, would meet the needs of approximately 97 percent of the population, and are amounts that have been established after years of intensive research studies. The RDA of protein for adult males is 56 grams per day, and for women it is 46 grams per day. This general recommendation is based on 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, for individuals in good general health. Protein needs can vary depending on a person's health status and exercise regimen.
For a personalized assessment of your nutrient needs Columbia studnets can make an appointment with a Registered Dietitian. Columbia University students can call x4-2284 or log into Open Communicator to schedule an appointment. Non-students may have access to a nutritionist through her/his primary health care provider or search for a dietitian in your area through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics web site. You might also want to check out the resources listed on the Columbia Health Get Balanced nutrition page.
For additional information regarding finding quality health information online, check out Health information on-line: Whom can you trust? Hopefully these new resources will help to clear up your nutrient value confusion, making it easier for you to make healthier eating choices.
When it comes to weight, the two factors to pay attention to are calories consumed and calories burned. If you consume more calories than you burn, you will gain weight and vice versa. The problem here is either that you are not consuming enough calories or your body is somehow not making the best use of them. Before we get into the biological possibilities, try a quick dietetic experiment.
With all the media surrounding diets and obesity, it may be easy to get the wrong idea about what constitutes "healthy." Eating a lot of vegetables as you do is great (and a vital component of a healthy diet) but vegetables are low in calories and many don't contain fat or protein, both nutrients your body needs. When you feel those hunger pains, consider grabbing a snack or a meal that combines all of these, such as a salad with chicken (lean protein), avocado (healthy fat and a fruit!), and low-fat ranch dressing. Including more healthy fats (limit trans and saturated fats) and lean proteins (also found in seafood, dairy, and nuts) in your diet may help you feel fuller longer and will also add more healthy calories into your diet.
If this doesn't curb your appetite, there may be other factors affecting your hunger sensors, which a health care provider may help identify. Some questions to ask yourself are whether you've been feeling increased anxiety, if you've recently started or changed medications, or if you've experienced increased thirst, heart palpitations, or a need to urinate. These may be signs of hunger-causing conditions such as:
- Anxiety and other mental conditions
- The use of drugs such as corticosteroids and anti-depressants
- An overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism)
- Grave's Disease
List adapted from The National Institutes of Health.
If you experience nausea or vomiting along with your insatiable hunger, that may be a sign that you have a parasite (such as tapeworm) in your digestive track. That possibility brings a whole new meaning to "eating for two." In the related Q&A's below, you may want to read more about parasites as well as other conditions that could explain your hunger. Regardless of the cause of your insatiability, though, if you lose more than ten pounds or five percent of your bodyweight unexpectedly or if weight loss persists, consider contacting a health care provider to get to the bottom of the issue…and your bottomless stomach. Columbia students may do this by contacting Medical Services or logging on to Open Communicator.
Whatever the cause of your endless appetite, hopefully this has sated your hunger for an answer. Eat up!
February 3, 2012506179
Dear Overactive eater,
Generally, a case of the munchies is your body's way of signaling that it's time to refuel. If snacks and even full meals don't fill you up, there may be another cause for your ongoing hunger. If diet changes don't do the trick, a visit to a health care provider may ease your mind and your appetite.
Based on your description, it sounds like you can rule out the possibility of a digestive parasite. Rather than fueling your hunger, most stomach bugs cause digestive troubles like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea that can kill your appetite. There is one infamous bug, the Taeniasis parasite (aka tapeworm), that is often blamed for insatiable appetites or unintended weight loss. However, Taeniasis is acquired by eating infected pork or beef so it's not likely that you have a tapeworm since you've been vegetarian for years.
As you suggested, people who follow a vegetarian diet sometimes don't get enough protein. These power nutrients give your body energy and also help you feel full, more so than carbs or fruits and vegetables. Vegetarians also need to consider the kind of proteins they eat. Unlike meats, individual plant foods don't supply all the amino acids that your body needs. To make sure you're getting a complete protein package, try combing two complementary foods that offer different amino acids from these four protein groups: grains, legumes or beans, seeds and nuts, and eggs and dairy. For example, a PBJ sandwich combines grains (go for whole wheat bread!) and legumes (peanuts) for a complete protein. Similarly, a yogurt parfait with fruit and almonds complements dairy with nuts. Newer research has indicated that protein pairings need not be consumed at the same time. That is, it should be sufficient to combine the complementary foods within the same day. For more tasty protein pairings, check out the related Q&As below about protein sources.
Another source of satisfaction comes from eating enough fat. Depending on your level of physical activity and other factors your fat needs will vary. However recent research shows that eating moderate amounts of healthy fats can really help satisfy. In addition to nuts, think avocado and healthy oils (canola, olive, safflower, trans-fat free spreads). Check out ChoseMyPlate.gov to calculate your calorie, protein, fat, and carb needs and determine whether what you're eating should be filling you up.
To make sure you're eating enough of the right proteins and fats as part of a balanced diet, it may also be helpful for you to keep a food journal. You can use the journal to plan out meals, make grocery lists that include healthy and filling snacks, and record when and what you eat throughout the day (and night). The food journal may help you answer some key questions to explain the uptick in your appetite. For example, are you eating enough calories throughout the day to make you feel full? Do your tummy rumblings coincide with any particular emotions like stress, sadness, or happiness? If you do end up seeing a health care provider, the journal will help them understand your diet and what might be causing your excess hunger.
If diet changes don't seem to satisfy your hunger, there may be an underlying health condition that's giving you the munchies. According to the National Institute of Health, causes of increased appetite may include:
- Certain medications (such as corticosteroids and some antidepressants)
- Grave's disease
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
List adapted from the article Appetite - increased at MedlinePlus
Since there are a variety of explanations for your hunger pangs, if adding a healthy balance of proteins and fats to your plate won't satiate your appetite, your best bet is to see a health care provider. Getting medical attention is a good idea especially if you have any other unexplained symptoms like frequent urination, increased heart rate, or feeling very thirsty. Students at Columbia on the Morningside campus can call 212-854-7426 or log on to Open Communicator to make an appointment with a health care provider or nutritionist at Medical Services. If you are a student on the CUMC campus, give the Student Health Center a call at 212-305-3400 to make an appointment with a health care provider or nutritionist.
Fueling up with more complete proteins and healthy fats may help you feel full and keep your body running strong. If your hunger still hangs around, visit a health care provider to find out what your body needs to fill up and feel good. Take care,
Getting the recommended amount of fiber can be a challenge, especially if you are limited in your food choices. Eating healthy foods other than whole grains is certainly one option, but with a bit of planning ahead, there are some other ways to make sure you are fulfilling your fiber and carbohydrate requirements.
If fiber is your main concern, then getting a lot of fruits and vegetables and taking a fiber supplement can help to "bridge the gap" on days where you must avoid grains. However, whole grains have a lot more to offer than just fiber. They may contain many other healthy components such as complex carbohydrates, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Whole grain consumption has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
Eating out is a challenge for anyone who has dietary restrictions, but thankfully some restaurants are adapting their menus to cater to clients that cannot eat certain foods, including wheat, dairy, gluten (a compound found in wheat and some other grains) and other common allergens. Consider talking with your server about your food allergies so they can notify the chef. They may also have some recommendations for you from the menu. If this is embarrassing for you to do in front of a client, consider calling or emailing ahead to ask about what items on the menu are free of wheat, corn, and sugar or how other dishes can be adapted to fit your needs. You might also consider ordering foods you can eat, such as salads, potato- or rice-based dishes, lean meats and seafood, and soups while out with clients, and snacking on complex carbohydrate- and fiber-rich foods before or after your business meals.
Checking out menus and calling ahead is useful because common food allergens can "hide" in places you may not expect to find them, such as salad dressings and some sauces. One resource to consider for finding a friendly restaurant is the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program website, which lists restaurants with gluten-free options throughout the US.
Since there are many benefits to eating a variety of whole grains, perhaps you can start taking some food with you when you travel, or shopping for food once you reach your destination. Since food packages must list all ingredients you can be sure you're getting what you need, avoiding what you can't eat, and you might save yourself some money in the process. Who doesn't like saving money?!
Finally, it might be useful for you to spend a little time with a dietician. A consultation could trigger many new ideas for getting the right amount of fiber. S/he is likely to present some creative and tasty options you may not have expected. If you are a Columbia Student, you can contact Medical Services (Morninside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC) to schedule an appointment with a registered dietitian on campus.
With creative planning and a visit with a professional you can be sure you're getting what your body needs to stay healthy. It might take some extra time and effort, but your health is worth it!
Fortunately for people who wish to lose weight, there are universal rules that apply, regardless of your typical diet — whether you're a vegetarian or omnivore. First, to lose weight a person has to use more energy (calories) than s/he takes in. To achieve this deficit you can either make dietary changes (so you're taking in less calories), get more physical activity (so you're using more calories in a day), or you can make changes in both areas. Experts recommend making both dietary changes and getting more physical activity for the best results.
It takes a deficit of about 3500 calories to lose one pound of body weight. This means if you are able to cut 500 calories per day from your regular diet you should be able to lose a pound a week (a healthy weight loss rate). It may be beneficial to consider finding the right balance of increasing your physical activity and decreasing caloric intake. You can check out the ChooseMyPlate.gov SuperTracker as a resource that can help you calculate how many calories you need per day, what nutrients are in the foods you eat, and how many calories you burn doing different exercises.
Some suggestions for dietary changes to reduce calories:
- Steam, boil or bake foods instead of frying in butter or oil.
- Sauté foods in vegetable broth, wine, or water instead of oil.
- Limit of high-fat condiments (like mayonnaise, margarine, sour cream, cream cheese, salad dressing, etc.).
- Try low-fat dairy products and nut- or peanut butter. Vegetarians sometimes begin to rely heavily on these foods as sources of protein, but low-fat dairy and nut products provide the same amount of protein as their full-fat counterparts.
- Add beans and legumes to your diet as low-fat sources of protein.
- Eat actual fruit or vegetables rather than drinking them in juice or smoothie form. The fiber in fresh produce works well to satisfy hunger.
- Substitute water, tea, and diet beverages for regular soda, juices, and other high-sugar drinks.
- Limit the amount of alcoholic beverages consumed (empty calories for everyone).
- Begin lunch or dinner with a broth-based, vegetable filled soup or a large salad with a small amount of low-fat or fat-free dressing. These foods take longer to eat and can help curb your hunger so you don't overeat during the rest of the meal.
Be mindful of portion sizes — read nutrition fact labels to find out serving sizes. Some rules of thumb:
- A medium apple or orange is the size of a tennis ball.
- A medium potato is the size of a computer mouse.
- An average bagel is the size of a hockey puck.
- An ounce of cheese is size of four dice.
Some suggestions for incorporating more physical activity into your day:
- Take the stairs as often as possible.
- Park at the far end of the parking lot or get off the bus or subway a stop early.
- Schedule your cardiovascular exercise (walking, jogging, swimming, biking, frantically cleaning your apartment before visitors come over, etc.) so you know you will be able to fit it in. If you're at Columbia, you can participate with CU Move to help stay motivated with your physical activity efforts and earn incentives. Check out the site to learn more.
Hopefully, you'll find some of these suggestions new and helpful. Good luck!