Optimal Nutrition

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

Dining out's effects on health

Dear Out to lunch bunch,

Restaurants, fast food joints, and delis are often convenient for a quick meal and provide a welcome opportunity to socialize. However, there are a couple of ways in which eating out may be less than favorable for your health. The specific effects will vary depending on the type of restaurants and dishes you choose, which is why educating yourself is a great place to start. Here are some reasons why eating out can make it hard to maintain a healthy and balanced diet:

  • Calorie overload: While restaurants and fast food joints have a knack for making tasty and unique foods, the dishes often have more calories than meals you’d make at home. Researchers studying chain restaurants found that the average entrée had 674 calories, the average side had 260 calories, the average beverage had 419 calories, and the average dessert had 429 calories. A bit of math reveals that a single meal out could add up to over 1,000 calories! Depending upon your specific caloric needs, you could be knocking out half of your recommended daily caloric intake with a single meal. Fortunately, many restaurants make calorie information available, which can be a useful resource if you’re eating out often.
  • Mega portions: One of the reasons restaurant food is often higher in calories is because of the large portions. Have you ever felt like your eyes were bigger than your stomach? You’re not alone. It’s been well established that when people are presented with large portions, many will eat far beyond the point of feeling full. Large restaurant portions can make it easy for you to fall into overeating without even realizing it.
  • Scads of salt: The sodium content of food in eating establishments is often sky high: 1,848 mg per 1000 calories in a fast food joint, and 2,090 mg per 1,000 calories at a sit-down restaurant. Those numbers are creeping up on the recommended daily limit of 2300 mg per day, so looking for dishes containing lower amounts of sodium can help you keep your levels in check.

The type of restaurants you frequent also matters as far as health risks are concerned. For those who are into the burgers-and-fries joints, research shows an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, as well as an overall lowered intake of key nutrients. For those who prefer fast-food restaurants that primarily serve sandwiches and subs, there tends to be increased intake of fat and sodium. (However, weight gain has not been associated with consumption of foods from these establishments). Finally, for those heading off to full-service restaurants, studies show that even though you’re probably consuming adequate amounts of fruits and veggies, you’re exposed to high sodium content, which increases your risk of developing high blood pressure.

If you’re ever interested in trying your hand in the kitchen to avoid some of these health risks of eating out, you can read No time to cook or visit ChooseMyPlate.gov for some ideas on quick and nutritionally-balanced meals you can make. Additionally, here are a couple of ideas on ways to make more healthful choices when you do go out:

  • Order water, low-fat or fat-free milk, or unsweetened tea to drink in order to avoid beverages with lots of added sugar.
  • Ask for whole-wheat bread for sandwiches.
  • Start with a salad packed with veggies to help control hunger and feel satisfied sooner.
  • Ask for dressings to be served on the side so that you can have control over how much you use, add little or no butter to your food, and avoid dishes with creamy sauces or gravies.
  • Choose main dishes with lots of veggies.
  • Order steamed, grilled, or broiled dishes instead of those that are fried or sautéed.
  • At buffet restaurants, order an item from the menu instead of going for the all-you-can-eat option.
  • Choose fruits for dessert.
  • If the portions at a restaurant are larger than you want, split it with a friend, order an appetizer-sized portion, take leftovers home, and remember that you don’t have to “clean your plate.”
  • Pack a healthy snack for yourself (e.g., fresh fruit, veggies, or a handful of nuts) if you’re going to be out and about to avoid stopping to buy an unhealthy snack.

List adapted from choosemyplate.gov.

Finally, whether you choose to eat out regularly or just for the occasional treat, a strategy known as “mindful eating” might be a handy tool. Mindful eating involves actively making yourself aware of why and how you are consuming food and the way your body feels when eating. Are you consciously aware of when you’ve eaten your fill, or is eating more of an automatic reflex? Asking yourself questions like this may help you make more balanced menu choices and avoid the some of negative effects of eating out, although further research on mindful eating is still emerging.

There’s certainly a lot of information to digest on the effects of eating out! But whether you’re eating on the run or whipping up a meal at home, maintaining a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is key. As they say, everything in moderation!

Alice

Eliminate all body and dietary fat — healthy?

Dear Anonymous,

In a word, no! Fat — both on our bodies and in our diet — gets an undeserved bad rap and is actually essential for our survival. Body fat is found in places you may not even think about when you're considering its role in our health. It's part of:

  • Every cell membrane
  • Some hormones and prostaglandins (hormone-like substances) which regulate many body functions
  • Nerve sheaths (nerve coverings)

Body fat is categorized as either essential or storage fat; both types play a vital role in our functioning. Essential fat is found in bone marrow and lipid rich tissues throughout the body. Storage fat is located around internal organs and under the skin (subcutaneous). These two types of body fat play important roles in keeping our bodies healthy. For example:

  • A layer of fat surrounds each organ (such as your heart, liver, kidneys, etc.), protecting and cushioning it against impact during sports or accidents,
  • Fat helps maintain normal body temperature.
  • Fat provides us with a supply of stored energy, which can sustain us if food is not available.

Dietary fat is the fat found in a variety of foods and is a concentrated source of energy for the body. It is dangerous to eliminate all fat from your diet. Certain fats, essential fatty acids, can only be obtained from foods. These are incorporated into regulators of specific body processes such as blood pressure and even help us maintain healthy skin. Dietary fats are also required to absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K. These nutrients are vital to our vision, bone formation and maintenance, blood protection and clotting, nerve development, and can act as a defense against oxidation. In addition to their health benefits, fats provide joy in eating. They carry flavors and aromas, and provide foods with pleasurable textures. Fats also fill us and help satisfy our appetite.

When it comes to fat, too much or too little on our bodies and in our diets is not recommended. The related Q&As can shed some more light on the facts about fat.

Alice

Breakfast ideas for thirteen-year-olds, and everyone else

Dear Student & Parent,

Bravo to eating breakfast! It's fairly well known as this point that a healthy breakfast is a great way to start each day — especially when it's made from scratch. Taking into consideration that, just sometimes, younger people are a little picky about what they'll eat, not to mention the energy it can take a groggy chef to whip up something in the A.M., here are a few easy, interesting, and nutritious breakfast recipes:

Creamy Apple-Cinnamon Oatmeal (makes two servings):

2 c. skim milk
1 c. rolled oats
1 T. Brown sugar
1 T. Maple syrup
1 apple — peeled, cored, and chopped into cubes

Directions:

  1. In a medium pot, heat the milk over medium heat, almost to a boil.
  2. Add the oatmeal, reduce the heat to low, and cook for about 5 minutes, or until all of the milk is soaked up by the oatmeal.
  3. Add the brown sugar, maple syrup, and apple pieces. Stir well and serve.

Berry Parfaits (makes two servings):

2 containers of yogurt (vanilla, lemon, or peach)
2 c. mixed berries: strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and/or blackberries
1 c. low fat granola

Directions:

  1. In 2 glasses or plastic cups, add a layer of yogurt to the bottom. Cover with a layer of berries, and then sprinkle on a layer of granola.
  2. Repeat the layers until the glasses or cups are full, ending with a sprinkle of granola.

Egg Scramblers (one serving):

1 or 2 eggs
1 toasted whole wheat pita or toasted English muffin
Optional item(s): mushrooms, peppers, grated cheese, chopped tomatoes, onions, salsa, or whatever else you like!

Microwave Directions:

  1. Crack eggs into a glass measuring cup and beat well. Mix in any other ingredients you like.
  2. Cover tightly with a microwave safe plastic wrap.
  3. Microwave at 70 percent: 1 minute for 1 egg; 1-½ minutes for 2 eggs — slightly longer if you add other ingredients, or if you like your eggs more well done.
  4. Spoon into a pita, or onto a toasted English muffin.

Stovetop Directions:

  1. Crack eggs into a bowl and beat well. Mix in any other ingredients you like.
  2. Pour egg mixture into a non-stick pan. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until eggs are cooked through, not runny.
  3. Spoon into a pita or onto a toasted English muffin.

Banana Smoothie (makes one serving):

1 banana cut into 1-inch chunks (works great if already frozen)
½ c. yogurt
½ c. milk or soy milk
2 T. honey or jam
¼ t. vanilla extract

Directions:

  1. Put all of the ingredients into a blender. Mix until all of the fruit is pureed.
  2. Pour into a glass, and drink immediately.

You can freeze this beverage overnight, then toss it into a blender, and pour it back in the plastic cup you froze it in. If you run out of time in the morning, you can bring your smoothie with you on the way to school.

Regardless of what you make, consider involving your breakfast companion in both the decision process and making the breakfast. This way you can both enjoy some time together and a nutrient-filled morning. Eat up!

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

Fruits and vegetables that can protect against cancer

Dear Jill,

You're right in thinking that some foods could help improve health or protect against disease. Some of these disease-fighting substances in food are vitamins and minerals, but another diverse group of plant chemicals are called phytochemicals. Phytochemicals, many of which are antioxidants, impart distinct flavors, aromas, and pigments to foods. For example, one enormous class of antioxidants, flavonoids, includes a group called allyl sulfides, which are found in garlic, onions, and shallots. It's believed that allyl sulfides may help produce a detoxification enzyme that protects against carcinogens. Other antioxidants are detectable by their colors — vividly colored fruits and veggies are rich sources of beneficial plant chemicals. For example, anthocyanins are antioxidants that lend the deep red, blue, and purple hues to raspberries, blueberries, eggplant, and red cabbage.

So how do antioxidants work? They are believed to protect cells from "free radicals," which are harmful oxygen molecules. Free radicals may cause damage to cells, possibly resulting in cancer. Smoking, air pollution, infection, and excessive sunlight can all increase production of free radicals, although they are also formed from normal bodily functions. Antioxidants may help prevent the formation of carcinogens (cancer causing substances), block the actions of carcinogens, and/or suppress cancer development. Most of these actions have yet to be proven in humans; however, foods containing antioxidants (mostly plants) contain many other healthy components.

The following table lists various classes of antioxidants and other phytochemicals, some of their rich food sources, and how they are believed to work:

Substance

Food Sources

Possible Action(s)

Vitamin C

citrus fruits, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, leafy vegetables, strawberries, potatoes

Inhibits nitrosamine formation, a potentially dangerous carcinogen

Carotenoids

apricots, papaya, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, mangoes, carrots, pumpkin, red peppers, spinach, corn, cantaloupe

Numerous anti-cancer functions

D-limonene

citrus fruits

May detoxify cancer promoters

Lycopene

cooked tomato products, watermelon, pink grapefruit

A class of carotenoids that's protective against prostate and possibly other cancers

Anthocyanins

blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, grapes, cherries, red peppers, eggplant, red cabbage

Antioxidant cell protection; may help prevent binding of carcinogens to DNA

Allyl sulfides

garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, chives, scallions

Various anti-carcinogen functions

Monoterpenes

parsley, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, squash, eggplant, peppers, mint, basil, citrus fruits

Aid protective enzyme activity

Flavonoids

parsley, carrots, citrus fruits, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, soybeans, berries

Block receptor sites for hormones that promote cancer

Indoles

cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale

Stimulate production of enzymes that break down cancer causing agents

Phenolic acids

parsley, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, citrus fruits, whole grains, berries

Antioxidant properties; inhibit nitrosamine formation and help form protective enzymes

Catechins

green tea, berries

Antioxidants linked to lower rates of gastrointestinal cancer

As you can see, a wide variety of fruits and veggies fall into one or more of the categories named above. Of note, the benefit from phytochemicals comes from eating the food, not in taking pills or supplements. Fruits and veggies contain a variety of phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals, as well as fiber — these cannot be replicated in a pill form. In addition, excessive amounts of certain vitamins or other compounds found in some supplements have the potential to cause harm.

To optimize your antioxidant intake, you can include at least five servings of fruits and veggies a day. If you're already doing this, why not aim for even more? Researchers have found that five to nine servings per day are most beneficial. Set your sights on variety, too. To obtain the benefits of these plant compounds, try to vary your selections from day to day, and from week to week. Include red, yellow, green, orange, blue, purple, brown, and white fruits and veggies, and enjoy a colorful (and healthful) eating plan!

Alice

Does vegetarianism affect teen growth and development?

Dear Concerned,

Just as there are healthy and unhealthy omnivores, there are healthy and unhealthy vegetarians, too. Teenagers are at a critical point in their lives in terms of height and bone development. Including nutritious foods in eating plans is of major importance in terms of reaching their full potential, both for height and bone density.

While adequate protein is essential for bone development and maximum growth, you can get enough protein by eating a varied and balanced vegetarian diet. Including eggs and dairy is an easy way to get protein in your diet, however plants and grains can be combined to give you the protein you need as well (check out Vegetarian wants to bulk up with protein foods for more info). Dairy and eggs contain complete proteins, meaning they have all the amino acids in the right proportions to be used by your body for growth and tissue repair. Dairy foods contain vitamin B12, which is only found in foods of animal origin. This vitamin is vital to your bone marrow, nervous system, and other life-sustaining functions. In addition to calcium, dairy products also contain phosphorous, the second largest component of bone. Look for dairy products fortified with vitamin D, which is needed to absorb calcium.

Whether you include poultry and fish is up to you. For many teens, it is easier to meet one's protein needs by including a wide variety of foods in their diet. Since you need sufficient protein every day, eating poultry or fish on some days can be a healthy option. On meatless days, including legumes, nuts, and/or soy foods can do the trick. Lots of other nutrients, many found in fruits and veggies, are also important for bone health. Can drinking milk prevent osteoporosis? in Go Ask Alice's Nutrition and Physical Activity archive lists some good food sources of bone building nutrients.

Everyone, teens included, must take in enough calories to meet their body's energy needs; otherwise, the protein will be burned for energy, and will not be available for growth and development of strong bones and lean body mass. If a very low-calorie diet is what you have in mind, it would be a good idea to consult with your primary care provider before cutting back on your food intake. It is during adolescence when you reach your fullest potential in terms of bone development (called peak bone mass). If not reached by young adulthood, you can't make up for sub-optimal bone development later in life. So, taking in too few calories and/or protein during the teen years could have implications for your bone health later in life.

This info isn't meant to promote overeating, or under-eating, but rather to help you learn to take in the right amount of food to meet your body's needs. Look first to foods that contain nutrients, and try not to overdo the empty calorie foods, such as soda. Determining what you really need can be challenging, especially because your body is in a state of change.

Your protein and calorie requirements will depend on your stage of growth and physical activity. The Recommended Energy and Protein Allowances, from the RDA, do not take into account these extra amounts you may need. For teens, it's recommended to use height as a measure for calorie and protein needs, rather than weight. To figure out your height in centimeters (cm.), multiply inches by 2.5. Your minimum needs can then be calculated from this chart:

 

Age (years) Calories per cm. Grams of Protein per cm.
Females    
11 - 14 14.0 0.29
15 - 18 13.5 0.26
19 - 24 13.4 0.28
Males    
11 - 14 16.0 0.28
15 - 18 17.0 0.33
19 - 24 16.4 0.33

 

You will need more calories and protein if you are very active and/or are in a rapid growth spurt.

Making healthy choices as you develop during your teen years can help you be healthy for the rest of your life. Kudos to you and your sister for beginning your healthy eating patterns now,

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

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