Optimal Nutrition

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Is margarine really better than butter?

Dear Baffled Over Butter,

You may be baffled over butter, but it sounds like you've got a good grip on chemistry! Some of the margarines sold in stores today are still made from oil that has been infused with hydrogen atoms, firming it up into a semi-hard or solid form at room temperature. This process is known as hydrogenation, and it allows the margarine to contain less saturated fat than butter. Unfortunately, hydrogenation also forms something known as trans fat, which actually does more damage to your body than saturated fat. (Both butter and margarine end up containing the same amount of total fat.)

Margarines made from hydrogenated oil usually appear in a solid stick form, similar to how butter is sold. Other kinds of margarines on the market today are made from non-hydrogenated oil, making them softer in texture and lower in calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and total fat. These soft margarines, which are commonly packaged in tubs and known as "soft-tub margarines," replace the hydrogenation process with small amounts of modified palm kernel and palm oil in order to make it softer and easier to spread.

Unlike margarine, butter isn't made from vegetable oil. Instead, butter is prepared from cream, contains saturated fat, and, because it's made from an animal source, also has cholesterol. Both saturated fat and cholesterol raise unhealthy cholesterol or LDL (low-density lipoprotein). Margarine is manufactured from vegetable oils, such as corn, soybean, or safflower oil, among others. Since margarine is based on plant sources, it doesn't contain cholesterol.

Because margarines don't contain cholesterol and are now made without trans fat, the American Heart Association recommends that soft margarine can be used instead of butter in recipes. Choose a margarine that contains less than two grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, no trans fat, and has liquid vegetable oil as the first ingredient.

If all this chat about fat has made you curious (or confused), check out Good vs. bad fats and "Good" and "bad" cholesterol in Alice!'s archives for more information.

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 your 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

What's that growing in the refrigerator?!? A guide for storing and eating leftovers

Dear Leftover lover,

Enjoying holiday leftovers is a favorite tradition. However, food-borne illness resulting from eating leftovers long past their prime can dampen holiday cheer. Typical symptoms of food-borne illness, caused by bacteria, include abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting.

Two different families of bacteria are found in food: pathogenic bacteria and spoilage bacteria.

Pathogenic bacteria cause food-borne illness. Leaving food out at room temperature (about 72° F or 22° C) for extended periods of time encourages growth of these types of pathogens. These bacteria grow rapidly when in the "danger zone," which is between 40° to 140° F (4 to 60° C). They are difficult to detect, because they don't affect the taste, smell, or appearance of food. Safe food handling and proper food storage are the best defenses against pathogenic bacteria. For detailed instructions on how to keep food safe for consumption, check out the Partnership for Food Safety Education web site.

Spoilage bacteria can grow at lower temperatures, such as ones found in refrigerators. These bacteria cause food to taste, look, and/or smell badly. Most of the time, spoilage bacteria won't cause illness, but they do make food much less appealing to eat.

Leftovers need to be kept in airtight containers recommended for reuse and food storage in the refrigerator and/or freezer. Leftovers can also be wrapped in two layers of plastic wrap and/or foil or in a plastic storage bag (with the food inside wrapped in a layer of plastic wrap or foil) to maintain moisture and prevent absorption of odors from other foods. When freezing leftovers, adding freezer tape also helps keep air and moisture out, and protects from freezer burn. Here are some safe time limits for keeping some common meat and poultry leftovers:

Food Item

Refrigerator Storage Temp.
(40° F / 4° C)

Freezer Storage Temp.
(0° F / -18° C)

Cooked turkey or chicken, plain

3 to 4 days

4 months

Cooked turkey or chicken dishes

3 to 4 days

4 to 6 months

Turkey or meat broth, gravy

1 to 2 days

2 to 3 months

Lunch meat

Unopened, 2 weeks
After opened, 3 to 5 days

1 to 2 months

Cooked fried chicken

3 to 4 days

4 months

Cooked chicken nuggets or patties

1 to 2 days

1 to 3 months

Cooked meat and meat casseroles

3 to 4 days

2 to 3 months

For more information on the safe keeping of most foods, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service web site. Enjoy your holiday meal today, tomorrow, and the next day,

Alice

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. Good work keeping yourself informed before you ingest!

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!

Food preservatives and additives

Dear Jeeeeaaan,

Food additives help maintain the freshness and shelf life of such food products because without them, they would spoil quickly due to exposure to air, moisture, bacteria, or mold. Either natural or synthetic substances may be added to avoid or delay these problems.

Food additives may be used in a variety of ways, including:

  • To maintain consistency or texture — to sustain smoothness or prevent the food from separating, caking, or clumping.
  • To improve or retain nutritional value: Enrichment replaces nutrients lost in processing — this occurs with grains, as some vitamins and minerals are lost in the milling process. Fortification adds a nutrient that wasn't there before and may be lacking in many people's diets. Iodized salt is an example. This has proven useful in preventing goiter, a thyroid disease caused by a deficiency in iodine. Enriched and fortified foods are labeled as such.
  • To delay spoilage
  • To enhance flavor, texture, or color

Preservatives are centuries old. Since ancient times, salt has been used to cure meats and fish, and sugar has been added to fruits to conserve them. Herbs, spices, and vinegar have also served as preservatives. Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates food additives and preservatives. Granted, mistakes have been made, which have resulted in taking some food additives and preservatives off the market. That is because at the time of approval, prevailing testing methods proved the substances as safe. As science continued to evolve and testing methods improved, changes were made. Technology has also assisted in the approval process as it has become more sophisticated over the years as well. In addition, Food Additive Laws are reviewed and revised according to advancing scientific research.

Food additives in and of themselves don't connote something "bad." For example, ascorbic acid refers to vitamin C and alpha-tocopherol is actually vitamin E. Some uses and examples of food additives are:

Anti-Oxidants: prevent spoilage, flavor changes, and loss of color caused by exposure to air. Vitamin C and Vitamin E are used as antioxidants.
Emulsifiers: used to keep water and oil mixed together. Lecithin is one example used in margarine, baked goods, and ice cream. Mono- and diglycerides are another found in similar foods and peanut butter. Polysorbate 60 and 80 are used in coffee lighteners and artificial whipped cream.
Thickening Agents: absorb water in foods and keep the mixture of oil, water, acids, and solids blended properly. Alginate is derived from seaweed and is used to maintain the texture in ice cream, cheese, and yogurt. Casein, a milk protein, is used in ice cream, sherbet, and coffee creamers.

For a complete guide to information about food additives, including the approval process, click onto the FDA web site.

Another useful link describing many food additives and their uses can be found on the Center for Science in the Public Interest web site.

Hope this provides you with lots of useful information,

Alice

Hints for holiday stomach stuffers

Dear Stuffed,

Put down your fork and raise your glass. Here's to feasting sensibly, moderately, and contentedly:

Before the meal:

  • Eat your regular daily meals rather than skipping to save room for a big holiday meal. Being overly hungry is a potential recipe for too much holiday cheer. Instead, eat a snack before you head out (vegetables or a piece of fruit are good options) so you will be less likely to overeat when you arrive.
  • If you need to bring a food to share, bring a healthier option. You can also try using ingredient substitutions to reduce the fat, sugar, salt, and calorie content of some of your favorite holiday recipes.
  • ChooseMyPlate.gov also has a guide for making healthier choices during the holidays that you can review. 

As you’re deciding what to put on your plate:

  • Focus more on the people, less on the fare. Try to spend time talking with other guests. Play a game, go for a walk, or try to engage in other activities that are not focused on eating.
  • Take a moment to think about the food options in front of you before deciding what to put on your plate. For example, if you choose stuffing and mashed potatoes, consider balancing your meal with some veggies instead of grabbing a roll with butter.
  • Foods that are high in fat make us feel full. If your holiday table is filled with fried foods or dishes with rich sauces, enjoy a limited amount of these. If the meal is served family style (passed around the table in serving dishes), it's fine to decline some items. For items you do select, take portions that are the amount you usually eat. Many people pile up their plates, and then feel obliged to eat everything.
  • If the holiday meal is served buffet-style, check out all the offerings before getting in line. You can avoid overloading your plate by taking only the items you really want to eat. Buffets are invitations for over-sampling the savories and sweets.
  • If it's appropriate to do so, get up between courses. An extra pair of hands clearing the table is often appreciated and will give you a chance to digest.

Some food for thought while you chew:

  • It can take 20 minutes or more to feel full. During the meal, eat slowly, chew thoroughly, chat with your neighbors, and sip water regularly to let your brain catch up with your stomach and register your fullness. Check in with yourself to see how you're feeling. Are you starting to get satiated? Try to become more in tune with your fullness cues and listen to them.
  • Watch out for the effects of alcohol. It increases one's appetite, setting the stage for overeating (it is also high in calories).

Actions to take after the holiday repast:

  • Take a stroll after the meal to get some exercise and help the food settle in your stomach.

Enjoying the holiday season doesn't have to mean overindulging in holiday cheer. Being mindful of your eating (and drinking) doesn't have to be limiting; it can actually enhance your experience. 

Happy Holidays!

Alice

Still can't control cravings for sweets

Dear Reader,

The frustration you feel in controlling your sweet tooth is understandable. There are many facets to this issue, so no one answer applies to everyone. Based on your situation described here, you can consider the following possibilities and see how they play a role for you. First, you mentioned that you are trying to lose weight. Quite often, when a person tries to shed some pounds, s/he cuts back on the size and composition of his or her meals. A recent fad has been to limit carbohydrates in one's diet. This leaves most people unfulfilled, still "wanting" something else. Others cut way back on fat, compromising flavor and fullness. Some eat what they think they should eat, without enjoying their food. Do any of these situations sound familiar to you? If your meal is satisfying, you may be able to handle the craving and let it pass, or not experience the craving at all. Try to incorporate sensory appeal — different tastes, textures, colors, and food temperatures — into your meals. You'll be surprised as to what a difference these factors can make.

Second, you wrote that you recently quit smoking. Congratulations! That's the healthiest change you can make. Everything tastes better when you become a non-smoker. With smoking cessation, however, some people experience variations in appetite and increased cravings for sweets to compensate for the lack of nicotine. These are generally temporary. Realize that you have already overcome a difficult obstacle. Asking yourself to quit smoking, lose weight, exercise more, and stop eating sweets is a lot to expect of one person at one time. Reconsider what you can successfully accomplish, setting short- and long-term goals that are realistic for you and workable within your typical schedule and patterns.

Third, restriction can lead to overindulgence. Some people find that the more they try to stop eating something, such as sweets, the more they want or the more out of control they become when they finally succumb. Allowing yourself one treat each day is a way to finding some middle ground. This can be difficult to work through at first, but the potential is there if you stick with it. One approach is to buy a single sized serving item daily, whether it's candy, a cookie, or whatever you like. Knowing that you can have a little every day can make the food seem less forbidden and more acceptable. This approach reinforces the concept of "a reasonable amount," and can help in curbing excessive intake.

Last (and perhaps most importantly), some people use sweets or other types of cravings and/or overeating as a coping mechanism for emotions. Do you find, or have you ever found, the cravings come when you are stressed, bored, lonely, sad, or even happy? As children, many of us were soothed with a cookie or other treat, and have learned to tame emotions with food, associating such eats with comfort or nostalgia. What starts as a coping mechanism can turn into a well-ingrained routine, becoming a harder habit to break over time. If this applies to you, you can take some time to observe what is happening. Try to determine what your patterns are. Are there other ways you can deal with your feelings besides resorting to sweets? For some people, distracting themselves with activity can work; for others, facing their issues by journaling, for example, can help. Either way, taking yourself away from the craving for a short while may help it to subside and/or pass. Sometimes this practice won't work, and sometimes it will. However, the more times you try, the more successes from which you can draw. In the long run, working on changing this behavior can enable you to feel more in control, rather than allowing the craving to control you.

So, it isn't so simple — but that doesn't mean it's not possible. Best wishes on turning this pattern into something healthier, too.

Alice

July 20, 2012

513995
Here's something else that could be going on. Some people's bodies take longer to get the "I'm full" signal. And all people's bodies react to a full meal by producing insulin (to lower blood sugar)....
Here's something else that could be going on. Some people's bodies take longer to get the "I'm full" signal. And all people's bodies react to a full meal by producing insulin (to lower blood sugar). If your body also is slightly desensitized to insulin (so it takes longer for it to work), as many Americans are, then your full meal may actually lower your blood sugar at first, which may make you crave sweets after a meal! But your after-meal sweet cravings will probably not happen if you keep your blood sugar more stable. Do this by decreasing carbs at the meal (avoid or reduce bread, grains, potatos, sugar, alcohol, and fruit) and increase your servings of other above-ground vegetables, healthy proteins, and healthy fats (like avocado, nuts, olives or olive oil, fat from grassfed beef or game). Doing this prevents my life-long sweet tooth from taking control of my life.

March 20, 2012

508887
Hi Alice! I, too, struggle with cravings--when I gotta have it, I gotta have it. I found that it's useful to look at low-fat options, such as low-fat ice cream (I love me some Skinny Cow) and...
Hi Alice! I, too, struggle with cravings--when I gotta have it, I gotta have it. I found that it's useful to look at low-fat options, such as low-fat ice cream (I love me some Skinny Cow) and chocolate-flavored non-fat or low-fat yogurt. I've also found that exercising before I indulge makes sweets less attractive. Just a tip! :)

February 23, 2012

507610
It is great to have the opportunity to read a good quality article with useful information on topics that plenty are interested on. The point that the data stated are all first hand on actual...
It is great to have the opportunity to read a good quality article with useful information on topics that plenty are interested on. The point that the data stated are all first hand on actual experiences even help more. Go on doing what you do as we enjoy reading your work. craving sugar

November 19, 2007

21364
Dear Alice and Reader,

I found this issue interesting, because I, too, MUST have a sweet after my evening meal. I don't know why, but there it is. Instead of obsessing over the fact...
Dear Alice and Reader,

I found this issue interesting, because I, too, MUST have a sweet after my evening meal. I don't know why, but there it is. Instead of obsessing over the fact that I have this craving, I find a way to satisfy it without going overboard. Deprivation will only lead to overindulgence, so build your favorite foods into your eating plan. I don't diet; don't believe in 'dieting.' I DO believe in eating a healthy, lower fat diet and never depriving myself. As long as you can trust yourself to not overdo it, a small sweet treat with a cup or two of tea in the evening should do the trick in staving off those cravings.

July 25, 2003

20494
Hi Alice, love the site! Some of your readers have asked for advice on how to cut back cravings for sweets. You gave excellent advice. I'd like to add one more tip: many people crave food (...
Hi Alice, love the site! Some of your readers have asked for advice on how to cut back cravings for sweets. You gave excellent advice. I'd like to add one more tip: many people crave food (especially sweets) when they are not hungry, but thirsty. Perhaps "can't control cravings" will be more successful laying off the sweets by drinking plenty of water throughout the day. cheers!

Good vs. bad fats

Dear Curious,

The "good fat/bad fat" you've heard about refers to fat's potential to cause disease. All fats have the same amount of calories, but they vary in their chemical compositions and effects on health. Fats are made of chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms. The saturation refers to whether all the available spaces on the carbon chain are bonded to hydrogen atoms, or if there are any hydrogen atoms missing. The three forms of fat found in nature are:

Saturated Fats
These fats have all of their carbon atoms filled (saturated) with hydrogen. Saturated fat is primarily found in high-fat cuts of meat, poultry with the skin, whole and 2 percent dairy products, butter, cheese, and tropical oils: coconut, palm, and palm kernel. Our body needs a small amount (about 20 grams) of saturated fat each day, but the typical American diet usually exceeds that amount. Too much saturated fat may cause a person's bad cholesterol (LDL) to rise and may also increase the risk of developing certain types of cancer. You can look for the amount of saturated fats in a serving of food on the nutrition label, under the heading "Saturated Fat" below the larger heading of "Total Fat."

Monounsaturated Fats
These fats have one space missing a hydrogen atom, instead containing a double bond between two adjacent carbon atoms. Monounsaturated fat is found in olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, and in most nuts and nut butters. This type of fat does not cause cholesterol to increase. When a person substitutes monounsaturated fat for saturated fat, it helps to lower the bad cholesterol and protects the good cholesterol (HDL) from going down. The amount of monosaturated fats (and polyunsaturated fats, see below) is not listed separately on the food label, but it can be calculated by subtracting the saturated and trans fats (see below) from the total fat.

Polyunsaturated Fats
These fats have more than one hydrogen atom missing in the carbon chain and therefore contain more than one double bond. The two major categories of polyunsaturated fats are Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 means there is a double bond in the third space from the end of the carbon chain. These fats are extremely healthful in that they protect against sudden death from heart attack. They can also help people lower their triglycerides. Omega-3s are used by the body to produce hormone-like substances with anti-inflammatory effects. The best sources of Omega-3s are fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, and rainbow trout, among others. Canola oil, walnuts, and flaxseed also contain some Omega-3s.

Omega-6 fats have a double bond in the sixth space from the end of the carbon chain. These fats are found in oils such as corn, soybean, cottonseed, sunflower, and safflower. Omega-6 fatty acids are used in hormone-like substances that promote inflammation. Replacing saturated fats with Omega-6 fats may reduce levels of total, bad, and good cholesterol. Many health experts suggest that the ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids should be 4:1 for optimal health. (Most Americans get 14 - 20:1 — a lot more than needed!) These fats are not listed separately on the food label.

The other type of fat that is found in food, but isn't natural, is:

Hydrogenated Fats (also known as Trans Fats)
These are manufactured by adding hydrogen to a polyunsaturated fat, making it solid at room temperature. However, instead of having the qualities of a polyunsaturated fat, it takes on some of the traits of a saturated fat. In the past, trans fats were widely used in foods as a replacement for saturated fats. Then it was discovered that trans fat was even worse than saturated fat in terms of its effects on health. In addition to raising LDL cholesterol, as saturated fat does, it also decreases the level of HDL cholesterol.

Many companies have found ways to eliminate trans fats from their products and all companies are now required to list the amount of trans fats on the nutrition label. Be aware that products containing half a gram or less of trans fat per serving are allowed to report zero grams of trans fat on the nutrition label. The best way to check for trans fat is to read the ingredients label; if you see the words "partially hydrogenated" or "hydrogenated" in front the word oil, the food probably has a small amount of trans fat. This doesn't mean you shouldn't eat the food, but you should limit the amount you eat — a little can add up to a lot. Some foods contain small amounts of naturally-occurring trans fats, but these fats, unlike man-made trans fats, probably do not increase the risk of heart disease and other conditions. Moreover, some manufacturers are now replacing trans fat with saturated fats, so be sure to check the nutrition label to keep your total intake of unhealthy fats in check.

Although too much can have negative results, fats are certainly required for good health. Here are some of the positives — fats:

  • Carry flavors
  • Impart desirable textures — smooth, creamy, and crispy, to name a few
  • Give us a sense of fullness and satisfy hunger
  • Are needed to absorb and store certain vitamins and plant chemicals
  • Can contribute to a person's enjoyment of food
  • Are essential building blocks in cell production, maintenance, and repair
  • Provide and store energy for the body's use

Bear in mind, though, that the calories from fat can add up fast since they are more concentrated in fat than in protein or carbohydrate. Also, as mentioned above, consuming too much saturated and trans fat may result in negative health consequences in some people. The secret is not to stay to one extreme or another; try to be flexible in your fat intake. What does that mean? Balance your meals and snacks. If you find you have a high fat meal (especially high in saturated fat), make the next one lower in fat. Or, if you choose a higher fat food, complement it with a lower fat one. We don't have to live an "all or nothing" philosophy when it comes to fat.

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

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