Optimal Nutrition

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Solid versus liquid calories — Which is better?

Dear Reader #1 and Confused About Calories,

Good questions! While a liquid diet probably wouldn't affect the way your digestive system works, you would still need to ensure that you are receiving plenty of calories and nutrients. Discussing this issue with a health care provider, such as a gastroenterologist or nutritionist, may be good steps if a liquid diet is something you want or think you need to pursue. Also, Reader #1, check out the Related Q&As below for more information about food allergies.

As for the calorie query submitted by Confused About Calories, the fact of the matter is, regardless of the consumption method, a calorie is a calorie. The energy it takes to burn one liquid calorie equals exactly the same as that needed to burn one solid calorie. What throws some people off is the concept of caloric density. Foods that have high water content tend to have lower caloric density (think fruits and veggies), meaning a greater calorie to volume ratio. For example, to consume the same amount of calories you would get from one cup of raisins, you would need to eat nearly ten cups of grapes. What adds to this is that low caloric density foods tend to make you feel fuller faster because of their water content.

This does not mean that simply consuming more liquid will make you want to eat less. Liquid calories may in fact be deceiving because beverages like sodas often contain a lot of calories but do little to satiate hunger. When studies compared food intake between one group given water to drink and the other given soda, there was little difference in the amount of solid calories they ate. However, even though both groups ate roughly the same amount of food, the group who drank the soda consumed more calories overall because of the beverage that accompanied their meal.

Depending on the motivation for your question, you may want to consider meeting with a registered dietitian or other health care provider to discuss this matter further. Keep in mind that a health care provider can also make any referrals to a specialist, if appropriate. In addition, you may find it helpful to read some of the responses in the Go Ask Alice! Nutrition & Physical Activity archives or the related Q&As below.

Remember though, your body needs more than just calories; it also needs nutrients, which may be lacking in a liquid diet. Although liquid calories may seem less significant than calories consumed from solid foods, keep in mind that a raisin in the hand is worth ten grapes in the bush.

Alice

For more information or to make an appointment, check out these recommended resources:

Medical Services (Morningside)

Columbia Health Nutrition Services (Morningside)

Student Health Services (CUMC)


Foods with negative calories?

Dear Reader 1 and Reader 2,

Negative-calorie or calorie-burning foods may sound magically delicious. Alas, there is no such thing as a calorie-free lunch (or breakfast, or dinner, or midnight snack). The negative-calorie theory hasn't been officially debunked, but all foods, with the exception of water, contain calories.

The idea of "negative-calorie" food stems from the notion that the body uses more energy to chew and digest certain foods than the food itself contains, thereby creating a net deficit in caloric intake. Some foods commonly thought to have this effect include celery, cucumbers, and cold water. However, that doesn't mean that eating these foods should be substituted for your daily workout. The amount of calories your body burns processing these low-calorie foods is so miniscule that it will not make a difference in your body weight. Additionally, these foods have little nutritional value, so if your diet is limited to these foods you may be missing out on the many vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients your body needs to maintain health.

If you are trying to lose weight, it may be helpful to consider substituting so-called "negative calorie" foods for higher-calorie ones, such as celery sticks instead of potato chips. In fact, substituting any kind of low-calorie foods (including celery and other veggies) for high-fat snacks may contribute to weight loss. However, adding "negative calorie foods" to an already healthy diet will have a miniscule (if any) effect. Some foods will cause a calorie deficit, but this deficit is tiny (think single calories) compared to the number of calories the average person eats per day.

For more tips on healthy eating, check out the Go Ask Alice! Fitness and Nutrition archive. Additionally, you may find it helpful to talk to your health care provider about developing a nutrition plan. To really jump-start your weight loss plan, you can also check out your local gym, fitness center, or join an exercise club to get a move on adding physical fitness to your routine! Fads aside, a realistic, long-term weight management plan includes plenty of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins as well as a decent serving of physical activity. Take care,

Alice

Food allergies and getting enough fiber

Dear Reader,

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!

Alice

Weightloss diets for vegetarians, and everybody

Dear Reader,

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!

Alice

Is canola oil dangerous or is this another urban legend?

Dear Confused,

Canola oil comes from a hybrid plant developed in Canada during the late 1960s to early 1970s using traditional pedigree hybrid propagation techniques (not genetically modified) involving black mustard, leaf mustard, and turnip rapeseed. The original rapeseed plant was high in erucic acid, which is an unpalatable fatty acid having negative health effects in high concentrations. Canola oil contains less than 1 percent erucic acid. In fact, another name for canola oil is LEAR (Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed) oil.

Your confusion about canola oil's safety is understandable. While the Internet can be a great source of information, many rumors and urban legends have circulated on web sites and been passed along in e-mails. Urban legends usually warn of dire consequences from something perfectly innocent; they often relate a story about someone who had such a terrible experience with something, yet that person almost always remains anonymous. These often frightening stories or accusations usually lack enough detail to make scientific, logical evaluation of the claim. The scare tactics of canola oil fit into this scenario.

Some of the information circulating on the Internet states that canola oil causes endless maladies: joint pain, swelling, gum disease, constipation, hearing loss, heart disease, hair loss... the list goes on and on. Canola oil has undergone years of extensive testing to assure its safety. In truth, canola oil contains essential fatty acids that our bodies need and cannot make on their own. Over 90 percent of the fatty acids present is the long chain unsaturated variety that has been proven beneficial to health.

It has also been claimed that canola oil is used in making mustard gas, a poison. This is totally untrue. Actually, mustard gas doesn't even come from the mustard plant; it was so named because it smells similar to mustard. Canola oil has allegedly been used as an industrial lubricant and ingredient in fuels, soaps, paints, etc. The truth is that many vegetable oils, such as corn, soybean, and flax, are also used in these applications. That doesn't make those oils unhealthy or dangerous. Canola oil has also been accused of killing insects, such as aphids. Again, all other oils can do the same, not by poisoning insects, but by suffocating them.

In China, rapeseed oil cooked at very high temperatures was found to give off toxic emissions. In the U.S., the combination of refined oils, added antioxidants, and lower cooking temperatures prevents this from occurring. In China, the oil contains contaminants, is not refined, and has no antioxidants. Some people have blamed the Canadians for paying the United States government to have canola oil added to its GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) list. There is absolutely no evidence of this.

As you can see, misinformation can be used to scare people. Good thing you knew where to turn! For more information on canola oil, you can check out the Canola Council of Canada web site.

Alice

December 17, 2012

520285
Why ingest erucic acid when you don't have to? I'll stick with my organic macadamia/olive oil.
Why ingest erucic acid when you don't have to? I'll stick with my organic macadamia/olive oil.

December 11, 2012

519994
I wouldn't eat it.
I wouldn't eat it.

Lactobacillus acidophilus for diarrhea?

Dear Reader,

Lactobacillus acidophilus is bacteria, not the pathogenic type that causes illness, but actually one of several kinds of beneficial bacteria called probiotics. These helpful bacteria are normally found in the intestine and the vagina. They are also naturally available in cultured or fermented dairy products, such as yogurt that contain live active cultures and acidophilus milk. Probiotics are also sold as nutritional supplements. Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate dietary supplements, the presence and/or amount of live active cultures in supplements is not guaranteed.

Probiotics appear to offer various health benefits. They create a more acidic environment in the intestine and vagina, which helps keep harmful bacterial growth in check. This natural balance can be disrupted, however, by antibiotic use and illness. In these cases, the bad bacteria proliferate, usually causing conditions such as diarrhea or vaginal infections. Taking probiotics may help reduce the symptoms of diarrhea and treat vaginal infections.

Other possible benefits include enhancement of the immune system, helping the digestion process, production of antimicrobial substances, and protection against certain chronic illnesses, such as cancer, among other possibilities. However, more research is needed to definitively demonstrate that probiotics have these favorable actions.

To answer your question: There has been some research to suggest that L. acidophilus (commonly combined with another probiotic) may reduce the risk and/or duration of of some cases of diarrhea if used as a preventative measure. More specifically, a few studies have shown that the use of this probiotic has reduced the risk and incidence of diarrhea associated with antibiotic use and chemotherapy. In another study, a combination of probiotics that included L. acidophilus resulted in a shorter duration of acute diarrhea in children. While these findings are promising, there is currently no consensus on whether L. acidophilus alone or in combination with other probiotics would be effective for the prevention or treatment of traveler’s diarrhea.

Despite this research, if you are considering using L. acidophilus or other probiotics, consult your health care provider before doing so. Those who are pregnant or immune-compromised will need to determine whether or not it's medically safe to take probiotics. Adverse effects include gas and/or bloating, irritation, sensitivities or allergies, and interactions with over-the-counter or prescription drugs and/or other dietary supplements.

There are other remedies for diarrhea, including antidiarrheal and antimicrobial medicines, but these are not recommended in all cases. When the cause is food poisoning, it’s best to let the illness run its course. Antidiarrheals can delay the time it takes for food-borne microorganisms to leave the body.

Hope this helps!

Alice

Hunting for whole grains

Dear David,

Even the savviest of shoppers can be fooled by some of the products on the market today. Food labels can be confusing. Did you know that when a claim appears on a food item stating, for example, that whole grains reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers, only 51 percent of its grain contents needs to be whole grain? A little background information will be helpful to you as you navigate your way through the grocery store looking for easy and convenient whole grain foods.

So, what exactly is a whole grain? A grain contains three parts, the bran, endosperm, and germ. The bran is the outer layer, which is high in fiber and B vitamins. The endosperm is primarily starch, or carbohydrates, which turn into sugar in our bodies when we it. The germ is the seed for a new plant and it contains B vitamins, protein, minerals, and healthy oils. When grain is processed, the bran and germ are removed, leaving only the endosperm or starch. This is essentially why whole grains are more nutritious.

And how do we figure out if a food is made from whole grains? It's easy to be tricked into thinking a food is a whole grain when it's not. For example, if an ingredient is listed as unbleached wheat flour, it is still refined flour and not a whole grain. One way to determine if a product is whole grain is if it has a Whole Grain Stamp from the Whole Grains Council. This identifies it at as containing whole grains. However, if there is no stamp, the key way to determine if a product is whole grain can be found in the nutrition label list of ingredients. If the phrase "whole" appears as part of the FIRST ingredient in the ingredient section of the food label, such as "whole wheat flour" or "whole oats," it is likely that it is a whole grain product. Words that are often indicators of a whole grain product also include "stoneground whole," "brown rice," and "wheatberries." Be wary of items listed without the word "whole" before, such as durum wheat or multigrain, because they may not be actual whole grains. You can also visit the Whole Grains Council, which is a good resource for additional information regarding whole grains and packaging, particularly words you may see on packages and how to identify which are whole grain and which are not.

As far as whole grains coming in a convenient package that can be grabbed off the shelf, let's start in the bread and cereal aisle since these items are the main types of food that offer immediate edibility of whole grains. Next we take a walk to the pasta aisle followed by the aisle containing rice and other whole grains, such as barley and quinoa, which typically involve some cooking time. However, many grocery stores now offer areas where you can find all of these whole grains prepared for you, so the final stop is the hot and cold prepared foods area.

For more tips about healthy eating and whole grain choices, check out the these whole grain eating tips from Myplate.Gov! 

Hope this clears up some of the confusion,

Alice

I'm bored, so I eat

Dear Fat Frat Guy,

You write that you're sitting around the frat house bored. It sounds as though you may have more time to fit in activity than you realize. Exercise doesn't always need to be a long, intensive workout. Short, frequent bouts can be just as effective as longer ones. Why not go out for a walk? Does your frat house have weights in the basement or other area? Taking advantage of exercise equipment is a great idea, but if there isn't any available, jumping rope between sets of push-ups and sit-ups, in your room or a living room or den, can help alleviate boredom.

If these ideas aren't possible, or you still need some suggestions to resist snacking, a few questions to ask yourself may help. First of all, are you actually hungry? When was the last time you ate? Could you put off eating for 15 minutes? If you can wait 15 minutes and then see how you feel, you may decide that you really weren't hungry after all, or you may even forget all about that snack. If you don't and still want to eat — try to quantify your hunger.

Consider the Hunger and Fullness scale. On a scale from 0 - 10, with 0 being BEYOND HUNGRY as though you haven't eaten in an entire day (not recommended) and 10 representing BEYOND FULL as if you ate three Thanksgiving dinners — again not recommended, see where your hunger or fullness falls:

0 Beyond hungry
1 Extremely hungry, irritable, and cranky
2 Very hungry
3 You have a strong urge to eat, but aren't ready to fall over.
4 Just a little hungry
5 Totally neutral... neither hungry nor full
6 You are a notch past neutral — you could eat more but aren't hungry
7 You are feeling satisfied. If you stopped eating at this point, you would need to eat again in about 4 - 4½ hrs.
8 You are getting pretty full. If you stopped eating at this level, you would probably get hungry again in 5 - 6 hours.
9 You are getting really full, and uncomfortable.
10 Beyond full

One way to use this scale is to try to rate your feelings of hunger and fullness. You have to work on paying attention to your body's signals. Make an agreement with yourself that you will eat when your hunger is at 3, and stop eating when you reach 7. If you can ask yourself how you are feeling before taking a snack, you may be able to alleviate or at least cut down on boredom eating. Remember, food's for nutrition and nourishment. If another part of yourself needs nourishment, it's important to figure out what that is and create other ways of meeting that need. Excessive snacking often catches up with us in the form of excess pounds, as you have found. If you repeatedly find yourself eating when you aren't hungry, or when you are no longer hungry, you probably don't need those excess calories.

So, once you realize that you aren't hungry, there are probably a ton of things you can do to pass the time. Getting off your duff and moving your body — somewhere further away from the kitchen — would be a good start!

Alice

How do I know when I'm no longer hungry?

Dear Not Fully Aware,

Your question is one many people deal with. Some people were taught from an early age to finish everything on their plate, no matter how they felt. This was often rationalized by well-intentioned parents referencing the millions of starving children around the world. Unfortunately, this type of encouragement does little to teach children about listening to their bodies or learning to identify or conceptualize the feelings that come when one is satisfied with the amount or type of food they are eating. This conditioning experienced by many growing up, can carry on into adulthood.

Others are out of touch with their body signals for other reasons. How often have you felt ravenously hungry and then couldn't believe how much you'd eaten? How much food does it seem to take to satisfy your hunger? Letting yourself get really, really hungry distorts awareness of body signals. If you're out of touch or ignore subtle hunger cues, it's extremely difficult to detect subtle fullness. As a result, you're only able to feel extremes. It's difficult to describe what comfortable fullness feels like inside your body, but some people express it as being satisfied and content after eating. Others say it's a subtle feeling of fullness, of not being hungry anymore (even if there's still food on their plate).

You can begin by thinking about how you are feeling while you are eating — a kind of checking in with yourself. This takes a conscious effort. Once you've eaten some of your food, consider asking yourself some of these questions: does the food (still) taste good? Is my hunger beginning to subside? After a few more bites, am I beginning to feel satisfied? Try stopping about halfway through to determine if you've had enough. Try rating your fullness from 1 - 10:

  1. Ready to collapse from hunger
  2. Ravenous
  3. Hungry
  4. I could eat something, but not very hungry
  5. Neutral
  6. Not hungry at all
  7. Comfortably satisfied
  8. Full to very full
  9. Stuffed
  10. Disgustingly sick

If you go from a 2 to a 9 easily, perhaps you are going for too long without food, or your last meal was too small (a problem for dieters). Maybe your last meal was lacking important satiety nutrients, such as protein, fat or fiber, which usually help to keep you satisfied over a few hours. Sometimes when we eat very quickly, a large quantity of food is consumed and before we realize it, we're stuffed. If this is your problem, try slowing down, taking your time chewing, swallowing, and resting between bites.

The most important part about eating to a pleasant fullness is to eat consciously — to increase your awareness. This takes practice for many people. Too often, we distract ourselves with other activities — such as studying, watching TV, or surfing the Internet, without realizing that we're full, until the entire bowl of popcorn, liter of soda, or pizza is gone. Give yourself time to enjoy and appreciate your food, and you can notice and identify its effects on your body.

For more information and insight, check out Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch's book, Intuitive Eating. If you are a Columbia student, you may want to make an appointment to speak with a nutritionist. Morningside campus students can contact Medical Services; CUMC students can reach out to the Student Health Service.

Best of luck!

Alice

Confused about carbs: What's a good carbohydrate choice?

Dear Jenny,

We need a variety of foods for good health and hunger satisfaction. This includes dietary sources of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates tend to get a bad rap, but in and of themselves, they are not bad for us. They are the preferred source of energy for the body, fueling the muscles as well as the brain.

You mentioned muffins, which generally are similar to a piece of cake. They usually contain flour, sugar, eggs, oil, and other ingredients, depending on the flavor. Don't be fooled by bran muffins — most typically don't contain significant amounts of bran, the fibrous part of a whole grain. In terms of other grain foods, it’s best to choose whole grains.

To get a better sense of carbs' role as a nutrient and its effects on the body, here's a brief overview: carbohydrates are either "simple" or "complex."

Simple carbohydrates are made up of one or two sugar molecules. The three single sugar molecules, referred to as monosaccharides, are glucose, fructose, and galactose. These single sugars combine with each other to form disaccharides, which are:

sucrose= glucose + fructose
found in fruits, vegetables, and table sugar
 
lactose= glucose + galactose
found in milk and milk products
 
maltose= glucose + glucose
formed when starches are broken down

Complex carbohydrates, also known as starches and fiber, are polysaccharides and oligosaccharides, which are long chains of sugar molecules. Starches are found in plant-based foods, such as rice, potatoes, beans, and grains. Fiber is found in a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Not all carbohydrates convert immediately to "sugar," or more accurately, to blood glucose. The digestive tract breaks down the long chains of sugars in complex carbohydrates into single sugars. Fructose and galactose do not immediately raise blood glucose levels, since they are first sent to the liver to be converted into glucose. Also, fiber is not digested by our gastrointestinal system, so it passes through, aiding digestion and contributing to feelings of fullness. Foods containing fiber often raise blood sugar more slowly than those without it.

However, there's more to a food than the amount it will increase blood glucose levels. Fruit contains many vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (plant chemicals) that are beneficial to good health. They are generally low in calories, and certainly are a good choice for a snack. As a matter of fact, many fruits contain a good amount of fiber, and more fructose than glucose. Examples of fruits that don't raise blood sugar quickly are fresh cherries, apples, pears, and plums. If you're hungry, some days, a couple of whole grain crackers may do the trick; other days, a piece of fruit will do. If you're really hungry, the piece of fruit may not suffice — you may want to add a handful of nuts, or a few whole grain snacks to satisfy you. When different foods are eaten together, the rate at which blood sugar increases is an average of the various items, and is also dependent on the quantity of food eaten. In addition to providing a wide array of nutrients, different foods provide various textures, flavors, and feelings in our mouths (known as mouth feel). These aspects of food provide much satisfaction — think about how we'd feel if we didn't have anything crunchy, chewy, fruity, creamy, etc. in our diet. These are more than enough reasons to see why it's important to include an assortment of foods each day.

Hope this helps you make healthier choices.

Alice

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