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

Is decaffeinated coffee safe to drink?

Dear Curious,

In order for coffee to qualify as decaffeinated, it must have at least 97 percent of its caffeine removed. What does that chock up to? An eight-ounce cup of decaf coffee would have no more than 5 or fewer milligrams of caffeine (compared to the range of 40 - 180 mg. typically found in one eight-ounce cup of brewed, dripped, or percolated java). Your concern over the safety of decaffeinated coffee probably stems from solvents used in the past.

Today, most processors use safe methods to remove caffeine. A few different techniques are available, and understanding them may help allay your concerns about coffee contaminants. Coffee beans are decaffeinated by softening the beans with water and using a substance to extract the caffeine. Water alone cannot be used because it strips away too much of the flavor. The goal is to extract the caffeine with minimal loss of flavor. Substances used to remove the caffeine may directly or indirectly come in contact with the beans, and so the processes are referred to as direct or indirect decaffeination.

In one process, coffee beans are soaked in water to soften them and dissolve the caffeine. The water containing the caffeine (and the flavor from the beans) is treated with a solvent, heated to remove the solvent and caffeine, and then returned to the beans. The flavors in the water are reabsorbed by the beans, which are then dried. This process is referred to as "indirect decaffeination," because the beans never touch the solvent themselves. The most widely used solvent today is ethyl acetate, a substance found in many fruits. When your coffee label states that the beans are "naturally decaffeinated," it is referring to this process, specifically using ethyl acetate. Although it doesn't sound like a natural process, it can be labeled as such because the solvent occurs in nature. Other solvents have been used, some of which have been shown to be harmful. One, methylene chloride, has been alleged to cause cancer in humans and therefore is not often used. Back in the 1970s, another solvent, trichloroethylene, was found to be carcinogenic and is no longer used.

Another indirect method soaks the beans in water to soften them and remove the caffeine, and then runs the liquid through activated charcoal or carbon filters to decaffeinate it. The flavor containing fluid is then returned to the beans to be dried. This charcoal or carbon process is often called "Swiss water process" (developed by a Swiss company). If your coffee is labeled naturally decaffeinated or Swiss water processed, you can be assured that no harmful chemicals are used. If you are uncertain, you can ask or call your coffee processor to learn about the method used.

A direct decaffeination process involves the use of carbon dioxide as a solvent. The coffee beans are soaked in compressed CO2, which removes 97 percent of the caffeine. The solvent containing the extracted caffeine evaporates when the beans return to room temperature.

So go ahead and enjoy that Cup of Joe — caffeine free!

Alice

Fruitarian teens: Are they stunting their growth?

Dear Reader,

Feeling fruity? Devoted fruitarians say they feel better eating in this style, that it makes their life easy, and they feel it is beneficial for the environment. Fruitarian diets include all sweet fruits and vegetable fruits — including (but not limited to) tomato, cucumber, peppers, olives, avocadoes, and squash. Some fruitarians add grains, beans, nuts, and seeds to their eating plans. If these foods are included, the proportions are generally about 70 - 80 percent sweet and vegetable fruits, with some beans, smaller amounts of grains and tofu, and a sprinkling of nuts and seeds. Many fruitarians prefer to eat their food raw. Depending on which items are included, some may have to be cooked.

The human body needs a variety of nutrients. Because fruitarian diets provide fewer calories and protein than vegetarian diets, they are not suitable for teens. For a teen, the implications of missing many nutrients can have long lasting effects. Following this eating plan can cause your body to fall short on calcium, protein, iron, zinc, vitamin D, most B vitamins (especially B-12), and essential fatty acids. Not only could your height be affected, your bones may not reach their peak density, and vital nutrients for nervous system development may be missing in your diet. It's important to understand that one food cannot provide the multitude of nutrients found in a mixed eating plan.

Such a restrictive eating plan for a teen also presents other concerns. Have you thought about why you feel this eating style might be right for you, and what the ramifications also could be? If you're considering fruitarianism as a means to lose weight, or deflect attention from food issues, you are better off addressing these concerns directly. Restrictive eating can lead to hunger, cravings, and food obsessions. Also, keep in mind that a diet of one food (or of one food group) is not an effective way to cleanse the body.

As you move into adulthood, you may become interested in trying out different diets to improve your health and nutrition. For your future reference, it is recommended that adults only adhere to a fruitarian diet for a limited period of time. This is because fruitarian adults (just like their teen counterparts) can experience deficiencies in calcium, protein, iron, zinc, vitamin D, most B vitamins (especially B12), and essential fatty acids.

Lastly, keep in mind that a limited diet may cause certain social disruptions. Meals with family and friends may become more difficult. Some people with less flexible food options report social isolation.

Just planting a few seeds to think about. Now let your knowledge grow!

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

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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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