Optimal Nutrition

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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

Soybeans — Can they help me lose weight?

Dear Macduff,

It's possible that snacking on soybeans could derail your weight loss efforts — it all depends on how much you're munching, and what else you're eating during the day. No one food will completely derail your diet; it's the balance of calories eaten and calories burned over an extended period of time that makes a difference in weight loss or weight gain.

While soybeans contribute valuable nutrients — plant chemicals known to lower cholesterol, and vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, potassium, and folate — they are a somewhat concentrated source of calories from protein, carbohydrate, and fat. If you're consuming soy nuts (roasted soybeans), the serving size listed on most containers is one ounce. In reality, this is a little over two tablespoons (slightly bigger than a ping pong ball). If you're eating edamame (boiled green soybeans), the typical serving size is three ounces (1/2 cup) of just the beans themselves (without the pods). When snacking on one serving of soy nuts or edamame, you're taking in about 130 calories — and if you're having this much three times a day, that's about 400 calories in soybeans alone. Serving size is important, too, because if you're indulging in more like a generous handful or two of soy nuts, you could be doubling your caloric intake, just for a snack.

Try measuring the portion you usually eat to figure out exactly how much you're enjoying. Frequently, we're surprised with what we see when we actually weigh or measure our food; often it's a lot more than the serving size listed on the package! While it may not be a good idea to weigh and measure your food at every meal, sometimes, it's helpful just to get a sense of how much we're really eating.

When it comes to weight loss the healthier recommendation is to keep tabs on calories taken in, from all sources, and the calories expended (including exercise). Finding the right balance can help lead to a healthier weight and result in great energy. Some people find that having a chat with a Registered Dietician can help clarify a healthier eating plan (for weight loss or just in general). Either way, you can enjoy your soybeans, but remember to enjoy plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains too!

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

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!

Eating at night = weight gain: Myth or fact?

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

Bon appétit! 

Alice

June 29, 2007

21199
Dear Alice,

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

Dear Alice,

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

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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