Optimal Nutrition

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Nutrition facts label

Dear Mom trying to offer healthy choices, but having some technical difficulties,

To think, while some children beg for the latest neon-colored sugar cereal to hit the shelves, your two children are tallying fiber grams. They have fostered their interest in nutrition. Educating about and encouraging healthy behaviors are keys to lowering risks of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, later in life.

As you are aware, the "Nutrition Facts" label is a helpful tool for understanding what each food contributes to daily nutrient intake. These labels provide the amount of carbohydrates, fat, protein, as well as percent daily values for a number of nutrients. Percent Daily Values (DV) are based on a 2000-calorie eating plan, which can be confusing, because that's more calories than most of us need. For an in-depth explanation about this or other food label content issues, check the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), or the Kidshealth.org Figuring Out Food Labels page for kid friendly explanations.

Unfortunately, curious consumers will not find "Nutrition Fact" labels on all foods, even if foods have packaging. Some specific exceptions to food labeling requirements include:

  • Ready-to-eat food that is not for immediate consumption but is prepared primarily on site — for example, bakery, deli, and candy store items
  • Food shipped in bulk, as long as it is not for sale in that form to consumers
  • Medical foods, such as those used to address the nutritional needs of people with certain diseases
  • Plain coffee and tea, some spices, and other foods that contain insignificant amounts of nutrients

Though you might not see nutrient labels on fresh foods, the information needs to be nearby. The FDA created a voluntary program to promote retailer labeling of the top 20 most commonly sold fruits, vegetables, and fish, as well as the 45 best-selling cuts of raw meat and poultry. The nutrient information needs to be available as a brochure, leaflet, notebook, or stickers in the appropriate grocery department. Labels for fruits, veggies, and raw fish include the following:

  • Name of the fruit, vegetable, or fish
  • Serving size
  • Calories per serving
  • Amount of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and sodium per serving
  • Percent of the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) for iron, calcium, and vitamins A and C per serving

For nutrient information for 5,900 foods from alfalfa sprouts to zucchini at the click of a button, look to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Nutrient Database. A simple keyword search and portion size specification will yield the complete nutrient profile of your food.

One of the most comprehensive print versions of nutrient composition tables is Bowes & Church's Food Values of Portions Commonly Used, by Jean A. T. Pennington, Ph.D. Some 8,500 foods are listed according to food group with analysis results for 30 nutrients, but they are not in "Nutrition Facts" label format.

Hopefully these resources will help make your technical difficulties with nutrition labels a thing of the past!

Alice

Breakfast: The first chance to fill your tank

Dear Reader,

Regardless of your activity level, breakfast is an essential part of a healthful lifestyle and is also important for maintaining energy all day long. The motto here is anything for breakfast is better than nothing at all. Think of your body as a car and food as gas. Without gas, your car cannot get from one place to another.

The rate at which your body uses calories for energy is known as metabolism. Think of metabolism as the motor of your car. Metabolism is directly related to energy levels, so the higher your metabolism, the more energy you have throughout the day. When you are sleeping, your body naturally decreases its metabolism. When you wake up, there is an increase in metabolism, which peaks by noon. How much energy you have during this time is contingent on how much food calories your body has to use for energy. Breakfast becomes the first stop to the gas station before your road trip. So basically, eating breakfast actually helps maintain high energy levels throughout the day. In fact, the more hearty a breakfast you have, the more your metabolism motor will roar!

You do have to stick to some guidelines, of course, to promote optimal energy.

Calories

The best range of calories for breakfast is between 350 to 500. Below 350, your body will not fulfill the requirements for morning energy usage; above 500, your body may store unneeded calories as fat.

Balance

Plan and eat a balanced breakfast meal including complex carbohydrate, protein, fat, and a fruit or vegetable.

Quantity to Aim for

  • 1 to 2 servings of complex carbohydrates. One serving equals 1 piece of bread, ½ cup of cooked oatmeal, 1 cup of dry cereal, 1 English muffin, ½ bagel, ¼ cup of granola, 1 small muffin.
  • 1 serving of protein. For example, 1 cup of yogurt, ½ cup of cottage cheese, 1 ounce of cheese, 1 large egg, 2 ounces of smoked salmon, 1 cup of milk or soy milk, 2 tablespoons (T) of peanut butter, or ¼ cup of nuts or seeds.
  • 1 serving of fat. E.g., 1 teaspoon (t) of butter, 1 t of oil, 1 tablespoon (T) of cream cheese. But check your protein and carbohydrates for fat, there's no need to add extra if you have a serving of fat in your granola or omelet.
  • 1 serving of a fruit or vegetable. That is, 1 medium piece of fruit, 1 cup of cut fruit, ¼ cup dried fruit, 6 ounces of fruit juice, 1 cup of raw or ½ cup of cooked vegetables, 1 cup of vegetable juice.

Some examples of energizing breakfast meals include:

Meal Equal to
2 pieces of toast
2 T of peanut butter
1 medium banana
2 servings of complex carbohydrates
1 serving of protein
1 serving of fat
1 serving of fruit

½ bagel
1 T of cream cheese
2 ounces of smoked salmon
½ cup of sliced tomatoes

1 serving of complex carbohydrates
1 serving of fat
1 serving of protein
1 serving of vegetables

1 cup of cooked oatmeal with
1 cup of 2 percent fat milk
¼ cup of raisins
2 servings of complex carbohydrates
1 serving of protein
1 serving of fat
1 serving of fruit
1 small muffin
1 cup of plain low fat yogurt
1 cup of orange juice

1 serving of complex carbohydrates
1 serving of fat
1 serving of protein
1 serving of fruit

As you see, there are many delicious ways to get from point A to point B every morning. Imagine your surprise when you see the results with more energy!

Alice

Does warm milk really lull us to dreamland?

Dear Reader,

A cup of warm milk is no magic sleep potion, yet it is probably the most common food associated with bedtime. Milk contains two substances that are known to be related to sleep and relaxation, the hormone melatonin and the amino acid tryptophan. The amount of melatonin in a glass of milk is minute, much less than what would be taken in a supplement. The amount of tryptophan in milk is also small. In addition, our digestive process is complex. Considering these factors, it is unlikely that a glass of warm — or cold — milk would shorten the length of time that it takes to fall asleep.

Though milk components and serving temperature are not likely to influence the onset of sleep through physiological means, warm milk might have psychological significance. The routine of consuming a glass of warm milk may elicit memories of mom, home, and comforts of childhood that help us to relax. This is part of the natural transition from wakefulness to sleep. Recommendations include practicing stress reduction techniques, sticking to a regular sleep schedule, creating a relaxing bedroom environment, and avoiding caffeine or heavy meals close to bedtime.

For some individuals, particularly those with lactose intolerance or milk allergies, a glass of milk can be followed by uncomfortable digestive consequences. Lactose reduced, soy, almond, and rice milk are options that are more likely to be tolerated. If you have no allergy or intolerance, and warm milk simply grosses you out, you could try flavoring it with a bit of honey, vanilla, or cinnamon, but there is no reason that you need to continue attempting to use it as a sleep aid. Keep drinking your cold milk, to meet your daily calcium needs, and try other sleep improvement techniques.

Alice
P.S.: As a side note, putting your finger into a liquid that has just boiled, whether it is water, tea, or milk, is not advisable. Boiling milk reaches a temperature of approximately 100ºC. Ouch!

February 27, 2012

507786
I have used warm milk for almost fifty years as a sleep aid and it works wonderful. i believe in it fully... better than taking pills.
I have used warm milk for almost fifty years as a sleep aid and it works wonderful. i believe in it fully... better than taking pills.

November 12, 2008

21491

Hi Alice,

I am a lover of milk and love it cold or warm. I have always had success w/ warm milk lulling me to sleep. I have even had occasions when I've had a decaf coffee drink w/ steamed...

Hi Alice,

I am a lover of milk and love it cold or warm. I have always had success w/ warm milk lulling me to sleep. I have even had occasions when I've had a decaf coffee drink w/ steamed milk and it did me in for the rest of the work day. It really has worked for me in all the years that I have been doing it. As a matter of fact, it's a cool night where I am tonight and I'm going to have a nice warm mug of milk and maybe add a little honey and vanilla, curl up in my bed, and read until I'm done partaking... yum, what a treat! Sweet dreams, ya'll...

January 10, 2007

21178
Dear Alice,

I have been having trouble falling asleep and do not wish to use pills. I have found that 1 measuring cup of warm milk does put me to sleep. There is very little time between the...

Dear Alice,

I have been having trouble falling asleep and do not wish to use pills. I have found that 1 measuring cup of warm milk does put me to sleep. There is very little time between the actual drinking of the warm milk and my being asleep. This is not usual for me to fall asleep so fast, so it must be the warm milk.

— Jerry

March 3, 2006

21030

Alice,

Just wanted to add that in most microwaves a minute is all you need to get it hot. 3 minutes is like cooking!!

Alice,

Just wanted to add that in most microwaves a minute is all you need to get it hot. 3 minutes is like cooking!!

Health benefits of fish oils

Dear Curious,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice

Where can I find easy vegetarian recipes?

Dear Reader,

Having some vegetarian (or vegan or gluten-free) recipes on hand can be helpful, whether or not you're a vegetarian yourself. There may be times when you have company over who are vegetarian, for cultural, religious, or other reasons, and you want to be prepared. In addition, people may choose to consume fewer animal foods and products in their eating plans, and desire to find suitable and tasty meat-less substitutes. Vegetarian eats are not the bland, boring fare some may traditionally consider (plain tofu, boiled carrots, or alfalfa sprouts!) — The flavors, colors, and textures can be lively and incredibly appetizing to many palates. And, similar to non-vegetarian meals, vegetarian eats can be simple or complicated to prepare.

Numerous vegetarian websites, blogs, and cookbooks exist. Let's start wtih some favorite websites and blogs:

Cookbooks are also terrific resources of recipes for vegetarians, including:

  • "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian," by Mark Bittman will appeal to those who want simple vegetarian recipes.
  • "Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook," by Terry Hope Romero is a classic. While all the recipes are vegan, you could easily adapt and add some non-vegan, but still vegetarian ingredients, such as milk or cheese.
  • "Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home: Fast & Easy Recipes for Everyday," by the Moosewood Collective. Actually, all of the Moosewood cookbooks are excellent!

These books, as well as other vegetarian cookbooks, are available at on- and off-line bookstores. For more information about vegetarianism, check out the Related Q&As. If you're a Columbia student, give Becoming a vegetarian — Columbia Health resources a quick read. Readers: We would love to hear your suggestions! Leave 'em in the comments!

Happy (vegetarian food) hunting,

Alice

Nuts about nuts: Are some better for health than others?

Dear Nuts for nuts,

What did one squirrel say to the other squirrel? "I'm nuts about you!" One variety of nut isn't necessarily healthier or better than another. All nuts are healthy, unless you have an allergy or sensitivity to one or more kinds. While individual types vary in nutrients, most nuts contain an array of vitamins and minerals, such as iron, magnesium, zinc, vitamin E, and small amounts of folate, copper, phosphorous, and calcium. Nuts may also contribute to one's daily protein and fiber needs.

The following chart provides nutritional information for some popular nuts. All numbers are for dry roasted, unsalted nuts. Some nuts are roasted in oil, which adds fat and calories without adding additional vitamins or minerals. In addition, some nuts are salted, which may greatly contribute to one's daily sodium intake. Based on that information alone, it seems that dry roasted, unsalted nuts are the way to get the best bang for your buck.

Nut type Calories(per oz.) Fat (g) Sat. Fat (g) Unsat. Fat (g) Protein (g) Fiber (g) Calcium
(% DRI)
Zinc (% DRI) Vit. E (% DRI) Magnesium (% DRI)
Peanuts 166 14 2 12 7 7 1.5 9 19 12
Walnuts 182 18 2 16 4 4 3 7 7 11
Pecans 189 19 2 17 2 2 1 15 8 9
Almonds 167 15 1 14 6 6 7 9 11 20
Cashews 163 13 3 10 4 4 7 15 1 18
Macadamia 200 21 3 18 2 2 2 4 1 7

Nuts are calorie dense foods, meaning they pack a lot of calories into a small amount of food. This can be helpful for people trying to gain weight, but also need not make them off limits to those watching their waistlines. For example, one ounce of most nuts equals about 18 to 24 nuts (a small handful for many, and a tiny handful for larger-handed folks), and contains between 165 and 200 calories. The majority of the calories in nuts is derived from their unsaturated fats — specifically, monounsaturated fat — which is more healthful than saturated fat.

Nuts offer so many valuable nutrients, and can be enjoyed in small servings as well. Why not try to:

  • Mix sliced nuts into plain rice, rice pilaf, or couscous.
  • Sprinkle slivered nuts onto vegetables or into salads.
  • Use slivered or chopped nuts as a yogurt topping.
  • Substitute diced nuts for croutons in salads.
  • Add chopped nuts to vegetable dips or soups.

In conclusion, it's great that you're nuts about nuts. No ifs, ands, or nuts about it!

Alice

Forgot to refrigerate leftovers — still okay to eat?

Dear Sleepy cook,

Sounds like a very tasty meal — one that would be tragic to discard. Unfortunately, it is likely that while you were sleeping, bacteria were partying on your stove and reproducing at alarming rates. Bacteria thrive at 40 to 140 degrees F and reproduce quickly. Thus, you should probably toss the sauce. Perishable foods should not be away from the fridge for more than two hours; seven hours would really be pushing it. Here are a few basic guidelines to follow in re-heating and refrigerating leftovers:

  • Tempting as it may be, do not taste food to determine if it is spoiled. You may get sick even from a small taste and your taste buds may not always detect good sauce gone bad.
  • Invest in a meat thermometer.
  • When initially cooking beef, chicken, or pork, make sure the meat reaches a minimum internal temperature of 160 degrees.
  • Make sure fish reaches a minimum temperature of 145 degrees.
  • Reheat all leftovers to 165 degrees.
  • Bring leftover sauces, soups, and gravy to a boil.
  • When wrapping up freshly cooked leftovers, store in multiple smaller containers so they cool more quickly.
  • Know that eating perishable foods that have been away from the fridge longer than two hours can be risky.

While it's ultimately up to you whether you eat or toss, wise eaters are wary of food that has been out a couple hours or more. Best of luck with future leftovers,

Alice

August 6, 2013

534185
Thank you! That was very helpful. I made a large batch if stew and had it in a large container. It would have taken a long time to cool down. I used 4 different containers after reading this post so...
Thank you! That was very helpful. I made a large batch if stew and had it in a large container. It would have taken a long time to cool down. I used 4 different containers after reading this post so it would cool down faster instead of one so bacteria would less likely grow ! Thank you!

What's the main purpose of electrolytes?

Dear Reader,

Electrolytes are vital to one's health and survival. They are positively and negatively charged particles (ions) that are formed when mineral or other salts dissolve and separate (dissociate) in water. Since electrolytes carry a charge, they can conduct electrical current in water, which itself in its pure form is a poor conductor of electricity. This characteristic of electrolytes is important because the current enables electrolytes to regulate how and where fluids are distributed throughout the body, which includes keeping water from floating freely across cell membranes.

Basically, cells need to be bathed in fluids — inside and out. To control fluid passage across cell membranes, cells regulate the movement of electrolytes into and out of them, which causes water to follow the charged particles around wherever they go. These actions help maintain a state of fluid balance. This is also how electrolytes transport nutrients into cells and wastes out of them. The difference in electrical balance inside and outside of cells also allows for transmission of nerve impulses, contraction or relaxation of muscles, blood pressure control, and proper gland functioning. In addition, the presence of electrolytes determines the acidity or pH of some fluids, especially blood.

As you can see, our bodies have developed mechanisms to keep electrolytes within specific ranges. If one loses large amounts of fluids quickly, however, electrolytes may become unbalanced. This imbalance can occur through vomiting, diarrhea, excessive sweating, serious burns, or wounds. In these cases, water and electrolytes need to be replaced. Life-threatening conditions may result if the losses are severe.

A well balanced diet usually supplies an adequate amount of electrolytes. The major ones are sodium, potassium, and chloride; others include calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and bicarbonate, to name a few. Most Americans get plenty of sodium and chloride from what they eat. Including five or more daily servings of fruits and veggies will provide sufficient potassium. Sports drinks containing these substances are usually only recommended for endurance events lasting over an hour.

Alice

Timed-release dietary supplements

Dear Reader,

It's easy to become confused with the whole array of dietary supplements on the shelves nowadays. One form may claim superiority in advertisements, but how are you to know for sure which ones are right for you?

First of all, vitamins and minerals are needed in our bodies in relatively small amounts. Vitamins may be present in our blood, organs, or other tissues. Although each micronutrient (scientific term for vitamins and minerals) has a specific function, here's a brief overview by category:

  • Water-soluble vitamins (all the B vitamins and vitamin C) and many minerals act as co-enzymes, meaning they aid in chemical reactions in the body. Excessive amounts don't make reactions occur faster or more efficiently than adequate or recommended amounts. Plus, too much of one mineral may actually inhibit the absorption and effectiveness of another.
  • Fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A,D, E, and K) are involved in specific roles of maintenance and repair of body cells and tissues. Unlike water-soluble vitamins, extra amounts of fat-soluble vitamins are not excreted, so over-saturation of these may lead to toxicity.
  • Minerals have a variety of functions, ranging from water and acid-base balance, to bone structure and co-enzyme activity, as mentioned before.

As long as you consume a sufficient vitamins and minerals, a constant influx is not necessary, and may also be harmful. For example, timed-release niacin is not recommended because it can cause liver damage. Timed-release iron supplements are ineffective because the point of release in the intestinal tract does not absorb this mineral efficiently. Some timed-release supplements contain coatings that prevent the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. As you can see, timed-release nutritionals are certainly not worth the extra money manufacturers often charge for them. Besides, Mother Nature has already provided us with a way to time release our nutrients... by getting them from a variety of foods, eaten at various times throughout the day.

To get to your last question, you are among quite a number of men and women who have expressed concern over whether their multi-vitamin "works" or "doesn't work"; that is not really the point of these supplements. Their purpose is to help certain people fill in nutritional gaps when they are unable to eat enough food or obtain adequate vitamins and minerals from their diet. Multi-vitamins also might be recommended for some vegetarians, dieters, and others who have food allergies, intolerances, or other problems associated with eating particular foods. A supplement may benefit the elderly, too, because sometimes older people can't absorb nutrients as well as they did in their youth. Remember, the meaning of a dietary supplement is to add to a diet, not to take the place of food!

Alice

Are yams an adequate alternative to hormone replacement therapy?

Dear Ana,

Wild yam (Dioscorea villosa) and Mexican yam have been marketed as alternatives to synthetic progesterone (not estrogen), which is a hormone taken by some women during menopause. These yams contain diosgenin, a plant substance that has a chemical structure similar to progesterone. In the laboratory, diosgenin can be converted to progesterone by using specific reagents and enzymes to carry out a series of chemical reactions. This transformation can only be performed in a lab — the same process does not occur in the human body. As a result, it's actually misleading for a manufacturer to term a wild yam supplement as "natural progesterone" because it is not progesterone, nor does it have any impact on a woman's hormone levels. Since diosgenin doesn't have hormonal activity itself, creams containing this substance are not effective.

In the United States, what is commonly referred to as a "yam" is actually a variety of sweet potato (ipomoea batatas). Yams are similar in shape to sweet potatoes, but are drier and starchier in taste, and are rougher and scalier in texture. Sweet potatoes are a good source of beta-carotene, vitamin C, folic acid, and some B vitamins. Predominantly grown in the Caribbean and Africa, yams are a good source of potassium, but contain no beta-carotene, and have lower levels of B vitamins, vitamin C, and folic acid than sweet potatoes. Eating sweet potatoes or yams will provide nutrients, but, as they contain neither progesterone nor estrogen, they won't affect a woman's hormonal balance.

Alice

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