Optimal Nutrition

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Vegan eating

Dear Reader,

Veganism: easy as 123 and ABC? Let's discuss. Before we start though, it will be helpful to determine what kind of "vegan lifestyle" you want to lead. The Vegan Outreach group and The American Vegan Society define vegan practice as not eating, buying, or using animal products (including honey and silk) or products tested on animals. Vegan groups give some attention to the health benefits of vegan style eating, but their main focus is on maintaining a lifestyle that minimizes the mistreatment of animals. By exploring your feelings about ethical issues related to consuming animal products and food, you will find your niche in the wide range of interpretations of what a vegan lifestyle entails.

Though some people may be able to completely overhaul their lifestyle all at once, it may be easier to make the change to veganism by breaking it down into three steps:

  1. Start with a small objective, such as cutting one thing out of your eating plan, like red meat, for example. Explore the nearest health food store and start sampling alternative non-meat protein sources. A registered dietitian may be able to offer extra guidance. Columbia students considering a vegan lifestyle may want to make an appointment by contacting  Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).   
  2. When you are comfortable with this small change, try cutting more if not all animal products from your diet. Sample vegan egg replacements, soy cheeses, and soy, rice, or almond milks. Also consider phasing out other products you use that contain animal byproducts (i.e., gelatin, leather, or soaps made with animal fat). Now would also be a great time to start researching and experimenting with one new vegan dish each week and checking out recipe sources such as Vegetarian Times or the vegan cookbook section at your local library. One low-carb breakfast recipe you may want to consider is a veggie omelet. Use vegan egg substitute, red or green peppers, soy cheese, salt and pepper to taste, and one slice of whole-wheat toast on the side.  Throw in an 8 oz low-fat soy latte and you have yourself a high-protein, relatively low-carb breakfast! 
  3. Once you've experimented with some recipes and are more familiar with new ingredients and household items, take the final step of cutting out all animal products from your diet and everyday usage. By doing your research and taking time to reach the ultimate goal of a vegan lifestyle, you will have eased into new approaches to shopping not only for food but other products as well.

Whether you have a strict or liberal definition of a vegan lifestyle, it is a given that you will cut animal products from your eating plan, but it is crucial to keep up on the ABCs of nutrition as well. Most of your replacement protein sources and vegan staples such as grains, fruits, and vegetables will contain carbohydrates, so a low carbohydrate/vegan meal will be hard to achieve — though not impossible. Without paying careful attention to the nutrients you are consuming, you may be at risk for not meeting your nutrient needs. If you're just looking to minimize carbs on the whole, cutting down on junk food (i.e., chips, crackers, sugary cereals, breakfast bars, and cookies) is the ideal way to do this.

As for maintaining appropriate protein levels in your vegan diet, experts at the Institute of Medicine recommend that 15 to 20 percent of daily calories come from protein. This amounts to about 65 grams of protein per day for men and approximately 55 grams for women. Although you will be cutting out commonly recognized protein sources — meat, fish, poultry, and dairy — from your eating plan, have no worries. Plant foods such as soy, legumes, nuts, and seeds also contain a good amount of protein. Check out the Vegetarianism section in the Alice! archives for more information on specific foods that will help you meatlessly "beef up" your pantry and fridge.

By cutting animal products out of your eating plan, you will also cut out the most common sources of a number of high priority nutrients like vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids. For tips to help you make sure you're consuming enough of them in your vegan diet, check out the Related Q&As below. Being conscious to include fortified soy products, cereals, and non-dairy milk, plus a variety of dark green veggies, legumes, seed, nuts, and beans in your diet is imperative in ensuring you're getting the nutrients your body needs. Many of these foods will also provide good sources of iron, riboflavin, and zinc which are also harder to come by in a vegan diet.

When making changes to your lifestyle and eating habits such as those dictated by veganism, it is best to have a clear understanding of the challenges that lie ahead. The concern you show for doing so in a healthy way is great. Keep it up and remember, although it may not be as easy as 1-2-3, by staying on top of your nutrition ABCs you can successfully convert to a vegan lifestyle healthfully!

Alice

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

Do diet colas increase appetite?

Dear Hungry after Diet Cokes,

People have varying reactions to diet sodas. Whether they're due to the aspartame (brand name, Nutrasweet), or something else, is a good question. Many studies have investigated the effect aspartame has on appetite because some people find it increases the desire to eat, while others notice it suppresses it. Questions remain because the results are not consistent. Even when blood sugar levels were measured after drinking an aspartame-sweetened beverage, some levels increased, others decreased, and the rest remained unchanged.

Most likely the caffeine in the soda isn't what's making you hungry. Caffeine is generally regarded as a mild appetite suppressant. Don't get any ideas here, because it is not successful in weight control. Caffeine's effect on appetite is short lived. Studies on this subject have consistently shown that caffeine is not an effective weight loss aid. In terms of caffeine content, a 12-oz. can of diet cola typically has about 35 mg of caffeine while a 12-oz. cup of brewed coffee has about 150 - 200 mg.

Chemical effects aside, here's another possibility: lots of people substitute a diet soda for a snack, or even worse, a meal. Ignoring your hunger denies your body the energy it needs. Instead of feeling satisfied from the soda, your need to eat becomes more pronounced. It may not be the aspartame, but the lack of food that's driving your appetite. Take notice of when the diet soda makes you hungry. If it has been a few hours since you've eaten, you probably need some nourishment. Instead of having that diet soda, try to eat a healthy and satisfying snack (or meal, if a longer time has passed).

If you find that the diet soda makes you hungrier when you're having it with a meal, consider whether your meal is filling. Substitute water for the diet soda and see if you feel the same way. If you're still hungry afterwards, then you need to re-work your meal. Either way, it's a good idea to cut down on the diet soda. Try water or seltzer with a spritz of juice for added flavor instead. Better yet, some milk or juice may help to fill you up and provide some valuable nutrients.

Bon appetit!

Alice

Eating at night = weight gain: Myth or fact?

Dear Reader,

You and your friends have picked up on a popular debate. One aspect of weight management that is vital to understand is that we gain and lose weight over periods of time — weeks, months, years — not hour by hour. This happens as we take in more calories than we expend. Another important fact of metabolism is that our bodies do not stop working, even when we are sleeping! Hearts are beating, blood is circulating, lungs are functioning, brains are even working. This all takes energy — meaning we are still burning calories.

There is no magic time after which the body stores fat. For instance, if you eat the same exact meal at 6 pm or at 8 pm, is one more caloric than the other? No, each meal has the same number of calories. What really matters is the total amount of food and drink you have over the course of a week, or a month or longer, and how much energy you expend during that timeframe. Excess calories will be stored as fat over time, regardless of whether they are taken in during the day or night.

When it comes to eating late at night and the potential for weight gain, there are several considerations:

  • Portion sizes — waiting to eat could lead to consuming larger portion sizes.
  • Quality of food — after a long day of work or school, a few slices of pizza or a fast burger may seem easier than steamed vegetables and broiled fish.
  • "Mindless snacking" — evenings spent studying, going out, or watching TV may lead to excess calories from fast, sugary, on-the-go options.
  • Health concerns — consistent periods of going without food followed by a large meal can negatively impact the interaction between blood sugar and insulin and make you more vulnerable to Type 2 diabetes.

So, to settle the debate, you are correct that late-night calories won't change your metabolism or magically count more than calories eaten during the day. However, limiting late-night meals and snacks may be an effective weight management strategy for some because it helps them to control their overall calorie intake. Some people find that if they set a time that they can't eat past, it helps minimize or eliminate the possibility of munching on a lot of high calorie foods. Another useful tip may to be to eat four or five smaller meals and snacks spread evenly throughout the day so you don't become overly hungry at any point. Following these tips can keep your energy levels consistent for work and play and can provide some long-term benefits to help you reduce your chances for diabetes or other health issues. 

Bon appétit! 

Alice

June 29, 2007

21199
Dear Alice,

Though your metabolism IS constantly at work, it does slow down later in the day, especially if you are just dieting and not exercising. When you exercise your heart rate and...

Dear Alice,

Though your metabolism IS constantly at work, it does slow down later in the day, especially if you are just dieting and not exercising. When you exercise your heart rate and metabolism both increase. In addition it is better to eat more meals and take in the same amount of calories because in doing so you keep your metabolism working. On the other hand if you eat less or worse starve yourself for several hours your metabolism slows down and potentially puts your body into a "starvation mode" where more insulin is released causing the body to store more fat. This is the most simple answer to this question.

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

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