Optimal Nutrition

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A sweetener called stevia

Dear Skeptical,

Your skepticism is warranted, considering the label "all natural" does not have one, standard definition or imply “risk-free.” In order to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), sweeteners marketed as “Stevia” may contain only one highly refined component of the stevia rebaudiana plant, called Rebaudioside A. Due to potential health risks, no other components of the stevia plant have been approved by the FDA as food additives or sugar substitutes. Non-food products (often labeled as dietary supplements) containing less refined stevia ingredients are available, and some are even deemed “safe for consumption.” However, the FDA recommends waiting for more conclusive research before consuming large quantities of supplements containing stevia-derived ingredients other than Rebaudioside A.

In addition to Rebaudioside A, most FDA-approved stevia sweetener products also contain fructooligosaccharide, a sugar extracted from non-stevia fruit sources. Some studies show that fructooligosaccharide may actually promote the growth of healthy bacteria, relieve constipation, regulate lipid metabolism, and promote immune system health. Additionally, these sugars may be less detrimental to oral health than table sugar, and may help to treat glucose intolerance. Rebaudioside A and fructooligosaccharide are both approved by the FDA as food additives.

Although some empirical studies show no negative side effects of consuming unrefined stevia plant products and deem them “relatively safe” and “nontoxic,” the FDA has expressed safety concerns related to these products. Such concerns include negative effects on the reproductive, cardiovascular, and renal systems as well as blood sugar regulation issues. Other concerns include the stevia plant’s potential ability to damage genetic material, but independent scientific studies have determined that this type of gene damage is only possible in a laboratory environment, not in the human body. Stevia proponents also cite the plant’s inability to be digested (hence, the reason why it is calorie-free) as evidence that it simply passes through the body without causing any damage.

When it comes to sweeteners and food additives, Rebaudioside A is the only FDA-approved component of the stevia plant. Considering the inconclusiveness of existing research, unrefined stevia supplements and other non-food products should be consumed cautiously. For more information about sugar and other components of a well-balanced diet, check out the Get Balanced Guide for Healthier Eating as well as Alice! Health Promotion’s Nutrition Initiatives. Good work keeping yourself informed before you ingest!

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.

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

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

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

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

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!

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

Fiber supplements — safe to use every day?

Dear Regular,

Some of the fiber supplements (available in powder and pill forms) you are referring to are designed to help alleviate constipation, and are to be used for a limited time only. That's because if a person has chronic constipation, the cause needs to be determined. Other products can be used as supplements, as long as there are no underlying medical issues, such as chronic constipation. Two steps to determine how you use supplements are 1) read the labels carefully to find a fiber product that can be used daily, and 2) speak with your health care provider to determine if you should be taking a daily supplement.

For people who experience constipation or other irregularity with their bowel movements, some causes may be: 

  • inadequate fiber consumption
  • lack of exercise
  • insufficient fluid intake
  • change in one's daily routine
  • ignoring the urge to move one's bowels
  • certain diseases
  • some medications

Luckily for you and anyone who needs more fiber, fruits and vegetables aren't the only good sources for getting more fiber into your diet. Here are some fiber boosting tips:

  • Have a higher fiber cereal for breakfast — try to select one that contains at least 5 grams per serving.
  • Add beans to salad, or dine on a cup of chili for lunch. Each ½ cup of beans contains 3 to 4 grams of fiber.
  • Choose whole wheat bread, which has 2 grams of fiber per slice.
  • Munch on berries (one serving = ½ cup), pears (1 medium with skin), and oranges (1 medium). If you eat just two servings of these a day, you'll add 7 to 8 grams of fiber.
  • Snack on popcorn (go for air-popped). You get 1 gram of fiber per cup (equal to about 2 to 3 handfuls).
  • Have a baked potato, which has almost 4 grams of fiber.
  • Chomp on a medium carrot, which can add 2 grams of fiber.

Part of the benefit of getting fiber through food is that you will also take in the abundant vitamins, minerals, and plant chemicals (phytochemicals) that are present — you'll get lots of important nutrients, such as vitamin A, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, chromium, copper, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc; also in these foods are disease fighting plant chemicals, such as anthocyanins, alpha and beta-carotene, isoflavonoids, and phytosterols, among others.

If you do take a fiber supplement, you'll want to be careful because too much fiber can bind important minerals, such as calcium, iron, and magnesium, decreasing their absorption by the body. If you have more questions about your use of supplements, it would be a great idea to ask you health care provider, who knows your medical history and can recommend the best source of fiber for you. If you're a Columbia student, you can make an appointment with Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).

Wishing you continued regularity,

Alice

Helping a friend to eat healthier

Dear In a quandary,

Your friend definitely isn't alone, but in order for her to change her behaviors or ingrained patterns, she needs to acknowledge that a problem exists, or see a benefit from making a change. Because food and eating habits are such a personal aspect of our lives, it can be a sensitive area of discussion. To answer your first question, diets that are high in fat, sodium, and calories, and low in fruits, veggies, calcium, and other nutrients, may contribute to the development of diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and osteoporosis, among others. If this factor is a concern to your friend, she may consider changing her patterns. However, if she is healthy now, the thought of developing any of these conditions in the far off future may not be motivation enough for her in the present time to change habits with which she's been comfortable.

One thing is for sure — criticizing and nagging don't work! So, what can you do? First of all, you can suggest spending time together doing some sort of activity. If you can get your friend moving, she may become interested in eating more healthfully. Try to disguise exercise into a fun pursuit. Some ideas include:

  • Going for a walk
  • Swimming
  • Hiking
  • Bike riding
  • Flying a kite
  • Playing Frisbee
  • ice skating
  • Borrowing a dog to bring to the park (or bringing your own) and playing ball

Another tact you can try is to determine something that is important to her, and show her that eating better can help improve the matter. While many people aren't motivated by diseases they can't relate to or that seem intangible, immediate concerns can hold more relevance. For example, skin problems, low energy levels, or stomach discomfort can promote a greater incentive or inclination to change. If she complains about any of these conditions, some appropriate suggestions could include drinking more water than diet soda, substituting a juicy piece of fruit for the chips, or heading over to an enticing salad bar rather than making a quick trip for fast food. Considering and implementing any changes or new patterns are only part of the challenge; maintenance is also key, and can be easier to follow-through when done together with a peer than by one's self. Your can demonstrate your support by bringing over some farm fresh apples, cooking a healthy meal together, going to lunch together at an eatery where healthy choices are available, walking together regularly during lunch breaks, etc.

Remember, gentle suggestions are better received than harsh criticism. Advice that begins with "You should..." may fall on deaf ears. Instead you can try to initiate a discussion, saying something like, "You know, I just read an article that said drinking water is important for keeping skin healthy... and I'm drinking more water as a result." Having a conversation about this subject may get your friend to think, and perhaps try, to take steps leading to healthier patterns of eating and activity. Then again, she may decide not to pursue anything at this time. If this is the case, you can express your concern to your friend, and let her know that if she would ever like to pursue healthier eating habits you are ready to support her. In the mean time, remember why you're friends in the first place and enjoy your time together!

Alice

November 7, 2008

21262

To the reader:

I think you could try to teach your friend about enjoying healthy food. It only works if you are subtle, so work in small steps. Try inviting her over for dinner and cooking...

To the reader:

I think you could try to teach your friend about enjoying healthy food. It only works if you are subtle, so work in small steps. Try inviting her over for dinner and cooking a healthier version of pizza or lasagne or some other food she might recogize. Or take her out for a healthy but filling meal at a good quality restaurant (Italian is often good for this). By doing this the aim is to lead by example: show her that healthy food tastes great, fills you up and can contribute to a fun meal, as well as being good for you. Then she will see that living a healthy lifestyle needn't be torture, in fact it is something that a lot of people (chefs, gourmet food lovers, etc.) deliberately seek! Good Luck!

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