Optimal Nutrition

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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

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

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

Quick and healthy bag lunches

Dear S,

If you are what you eat, being healthy and time efficient sound like great qualities to have! Whether your motivations include saving time or money, improving your nutrition, maintaining or losing weight, or fostering your culinary skills, preparing your own lunch is a grand idea! Doing so can be a way to cater to your individual needs, nutritionally and conveniently, and to energize you through your busy days at school and beyond. With everything else that’s on your plate, preparing nutritious foods may seem like a challenge. However, with a few easy and balanced tips, you’ll be savoring a tasty lunch in no time.

First, a little review of the food groups may serve up some hot and cool lunch options. Main food groups include:

  • Fruits, naturally sweet and juicy, are great as salad ingredients, sides, or snacks. Grab a fruit that comes with its own wrapper (e.g. apples, oranges, bananas) or a small container of grapes or cut melon. Dried and canned fruits may also make for portable options.
  • Grains come as whole and refined grains. Whole grains use the entire kernel of the grain (e.g., whole wheat flour items, brown rice, oatmeal, popcorn). Refined grains have been milled to remove their bran and germ (e.g., white flour, white rice, white bread, pasta, noodles). They're great for sandwiches, wraps, noodle or rice dishes, and snacks.
  • Vegetables (raw, cooked, fresh, frozen, or canned) are easy to transport and are nutritious! Convenient versions include bite-sized vegetables (think baby carrots or cut celery sticks), salads, wrap fillers, soups, and potato dishes.
  • Meat and beans make great sandwiches or wraps with turkey, lean ham or roast beef, nut butter, fish (e.g., tuna, salmon), or hummus (chick pea spread/dip). They're hearty and complement most grains and vegetables.
  • Dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese (e.g., string cheese, cottage cheese) make for portable lunch items high in calcium. Try incorporating low-fat versions with less or no added sugar. Calcium-fortified non-dairy products may also be an option.
  • Oils and fats are part of a healthy diet, but use oils, fats, and their products (e.g., mayonnaise, butter, margarine, lard, animal fat, shortening) sparingly. Avoid trans-fat and limit the amount of food items high in oils and fats, such as some baked items (e.g., cookies, cakes), deep fried foods, and some packaged foods.

Suggestions for compiling easy and healthy lunches include:

  • Make it a combo meal! Try incorporating three or more food groups into a meal. Focus on fruit, vary your vegetables, consume calcium-rich foods, and make half of your grains whole ones. A sample menu may be a whole wheat pita stuffed with chicken breast, hummus, and spinach with a side of a low-fat yogurt cup and an apple.
  • Keep it simple. Whole, unprocessed ingredients make for easy preparation and high nutrition. Try having a sizeable stock of fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, grains, and lean meats as basics for your lunch combinations.
  • Limit sweets and fats. Try to limit food items high in added sugar and fats, such as soda, cookies, candy, some snack bars, and deep fried items.
  • Make it up ahead of time. If you’re a top chef, make bigger batches of your famous dishes so that you can portion out meals for several days or freeze some for later use. Not a cook? No problem! Give wraps and salads a try.
  • Rotate your menu. Doing this will ensure that you won't get bored of eating the same thing each day, and this may help you incorporate a full range of food groups.
  • Remember: Safety first! Wash your hands while preparing and eating. Properly prepare your foods to appropriate temperatures before eating them. If you have access, store your lunch in appropriate temperatures to avoid having your food spoil. An insulated, reusable lunch bag with a reusable cold pack may help you keep your lunch safe and stay green!

For more information about creating a healthy lunch, check out ChooseMyPlate.gov for more tips and a personalized eating plan. You might also get your friends involved in the planning process. Ask them about their favorite quick and healthy lunches and trade ideas. These make for nutritious conversations and fruitful times with others. Bon appétit!

Alice

For more information, check out this recommended resource:

get balanced! Columbia University's Guide for Healthier Eating


Ginkgo — what d'ya thinko?

Dear What D'Ya Thinko About Ginkgo,

Gingko (Latin name, Ginkgo biloba) has been part of Chinese traditional medicine for thousands of years. It is extracted from the leaves of the hardy ginkgo biloba tree and is available in a variety of forms, including teas and tablets. Proponents of ginkgo believe that consuming the leaves increases cerebral blood flow and prevents the lumping of platelets in brain tissue. They also believe that ginkgo has other health benefits, such as slowing memory loss, improving cognitive ability, and curing conditions such as asthma, PMS, multiple sclerosis, and sexual dysfunction. For one herb, that's quite a resume!

While some claims on the Ginkgo plant may have some merit, not all are backed by research. Some studies have found that ginkgo biloba has positive effects on cognitive ability, though others have found that this may not be true. Ginkgo has been found to have possible antioxidant properties, which means that it may help the body fight free radicals. Free radicals in the brain attack healthy cells, stealing the cells' electrons. As an antioxidant, ingested ginkgo provides a target for these hungry cells, allowing them to steal ginkgo's electrons rather than from the healthy cells. Ginkgo has been found to be helpful in some patients with claudication (painful legs due to clogged arteries) and dementia. Despite these findings, more research is needed to establish ginkgo as the panacea that it's believed to be.

So, let's say you decide to ginkgo. You may be wondering about the recommended dose. For adults 18 and older, common dosage is typically around 80 to 240 mg, and may be taken two to three times a day (depending on the reason for use). It’s recommended that if you’re just starting to take ginkgo, it’s best to not take any more than 120 mg per day to avoid some gastrointestinal upset. Ginkgo might be safe for children, but it's probably a good idea not to give it to them unless it's under the strict supervision of a health care provider.

Ginkgo, though it is natural, may cause side effects, such as bleeding, headache, nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, and allergic reactions (some of which may be severe). Moreover, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate ginkgo or other supplements. As such, it's recommended you ask your health care provider, if you are considering taking ginkgo, especially if you have a bleeding disorder or if you are taking any other medications/supplements. For more information about ginkgo, you may want to check out the section on supplements and ergonenic aids in the Go Ask Alice! Nutrition & Physical Activity archives.

Doing your homework on complementary and alternative medicine is a wise step to take — be proud of yourself for learning more info before you gink-go or gink-no.

Alice

A healthy model is a model of health

Dear N,

Rather than prescribing you a "model's diet," as there are probably as many of them as there are models (both healthy and unhealthy), a better suggestion would be to follow the guidelines for a model diet — that is, start by resisting the urge to compare yourself to other models. Focusing on what's healthy for you is the healthiest runway to strut on.

You have already taken a step in the right direction by taking good care of yourself and your health:

Exercising regularly is fantastic for health and wellness. For a well-rounded exercise plan, be sure to include both cardio and weight training workouts. Current recommendations for a healthy dose of exercise for adults include 2 hours and 30 minutes (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (i.e., brisk walking) every week, plus muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days per week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest,  shoulders, and arms).

Meeting with a nutritionist or dietician can help you figure out a specific eating plan tailored for your energy and nutritional needs. According to the USDA’s 2011 MyPlate Plan, a healthy diet for a typical woman aged 19-30 includes 6 ounces of grains (with 3 ounces coming from whole grains), 2.5 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of dairy products, 5 1/2 ounces of protein (lean meats and beans) and up to 6 teaspoons from the oil group. Recommendations for a typical man aged 19-30 includes 8 ounces of grains, with at least 4 ounces coming from whole grains, 3 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of dairy products, 6 1/2 ounces of protein (lean meats and beans) and up to 7 teaspoons of foods from the oil group. With a balanced diet, men and women can eat still eat sweets and treats in moderation and maintain a healthy diet.

Getting your beauty sleep is important — both on and off the runway! While six solid hours can be enough for some people, others, especially people in their late teens and early 20s, need as many as nine or ten to be completely rested and alert. For sleep tips, you can check out the A!Sleep Site.  

Only your dietician can tell you how often you should meet with her/him in a given period of time. In addition, you might also meet with a health care provider at your university's health service for a physical or check-ups to make sure that your body stays healthy while you continue with your eating, exercise, and would-be modeling plans. Columbia students can make an appointment to discuss their nutritional concerns online through Open Communicator, or by calling x4-2284.

Good luck with your modeling debut. Following the above tips can help you make a lasting impression along your path to becoming a model of good health!

Alice

Could drinking too much soda lead to osteoporosis or kidney failure?

Dear Curious,

You may want to screw the cap back on that cola! It appears that there is an association between soda consumption and osteoporosis, as well as an association between soda consumption and markers for kidney disease in women who have a low to normal Body Mass Index (BMI). As with most foods and drinks, moderation is key to good health. A little information can go a long way, so keep on reading to learn more about these links.

Studies have shown an association between regular intake of colas that contain phosphoric acid and negative effects on the bone. Researchers hypothesize that a high level of phosphoric acid may lead the body to tap the bones for calcium to neutralize acids. Alternatively, researchers believe that osteoporosis could be a result of diet displacement — that is, heavy soda drinkers may not be drinking enough milk or fortified juices that are good sources of vitamin D and calcium. Just to note, the link between soda and osteoporosis was previously thought to be due to the carbonation in the soda — research has shown this association to be false.

As for kidney function, studies have found that women with low to normal BMIs who drink more than two cans of soda daily have about double the risk of developing albuminuria (the presence of the protein albumin in the urine) relative to those who don't drink that much soda. Albuminuria is a marker for developing early kidney disease. Researchers believe that this effect is more pronounced in low to normal weight women, because obesity already damages the kidneys and the extra damage from soda is likely to be less observable. It is unknown why the same effect is not seen in men. Additionally, studies have shown mixed results on the relationship between soda consumption and the development and recurrence of kidney stones.

In any case, reducing soda consumption can't be a bad thing. Not only are you playing it safe with regards to osteoporosis and kidney function, you're also avoiding a lot of extra calories and damage to your teeth. For tips on cutting down, check out Getting off colas, sodas, pop, fiz...oh, whatever!. Now raise your glass to better health! 

Alice

May 18, 2012

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Hmm...interesting. I also heard that cow's milk contains some protein which prompts the bones in your body to release calcium. There's supposodly support for high cow milk consumption and...
Hmm...interesting. I also heard that cow's milk contains some protein which prompts the bones in your body to release calcium. There's supposodly support for high cow milk consumption and osteoporosis.

Nutritional differences between canned, frozen, and fresh veggies?

Dear Reader,

A busy lifestyle and a rigorous semester may not always allow us to have fresh vegetables on hand. But, there are benefits and drawbacks of fresh, frozen, and canned vegetables. For starters, no matter which way you store it, a vegetable is always going to contain carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other plant chemicals, known as "phytochemicals," all of which are good for us no matter what. You’ll be happy to know that none of these nutrients are completely lost from processing.

While most people feel that fresh veggies are optimal, they may lose nutrients before they even get into your stomach. Raw vegetables lose some vitamins just by sitting around. It could take up to two weeks from the time they've been picked until they reach your plate. By this time, 10 to 50 percent of the less stable nutrients may have disappeared. Still, raw, lightly prepared, or minimally processed veggies (and fruits) often have a higher nutrient value than well-cooked ones. To help preserve the nutrient content of veggies (and fruits) during cooking or other preparation:

  • Stick with shorter cooking times and lower temperatures (e.g., avoid deep frying)
  • Cook with little or no water to help retain water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin C and the B vitamins. For example, steam or microwave rather than boil. To limit exposure to heat when cooking this way, wait until the water is boiling before adding veggies.
  • For more information, read Cooking veggies and vitamin loss?

Frozen and canned vegetables are often processed shortly after they are picked, so that nutrient losses would not occur during shipping, on the grocer's shelf, or in your home. Frozen vegetables actually retain a high proportion of their original nutrients. Sometimes, though, they are blanched (dipped in hot water), which preserves color and texture, but may compromise some vitamins. In order to avoid extra calories, salt, and/or fat, choose frozen vegetables without added sauces or cheese. Sodium is often added to canned products. A portion of this may be rinsed off with water, or you can choose the low sodium or no sodium that are often available (check the label!).

Whether fresh, frozen, or canned fits into your lifestyle, select any type that you'll enjoy eating. The number of servings needed in a day varies depending on your age and other factors, however, adults generally need about 2.5 to 3 cups of vegetables and 1.5 to 2 cups of fruit each day. Read Food Guidelines — How much is a serving? in the Go Ask Alice! Nutrition & Physical Activity archive for specific veggie and fruit serving size information. You can also check out Choosemyplate.gov for personalized recommendations.

As a side note, you may think that nutritional supplements are a quick and easy way of getting the nutrients you need in case you don't follow a healthy eating plan. However, a well-balanced diet rich in veggies and fruits can offer you much, much more than these supplements ever could, such as phytochemicals, which could protect against cancer, heart disease, other illnesses, and who knows what else? Beneficial substances such as these are found in vegetables no matter what form they are in.

Alice

What's more important: Calories or fat grams?

Dear Reader,

A calorie is the standard unit for measuring energy released from energy-yielding nutrients, such as fat, protein, and carbohydrate. Fat is an essential nutrient that helps the body transport and absorb fat-soluble vitamins (e.g., A, D, E, and K), among other functions. Whereas proteins and carbohydrates have only four calories of energy per gram, fat has nine. Food labels are federally standardized to help make it easier for the consumer to know what's in a particular food. You can calculate the percentage of calories from fat by looking at the column marked "Percent Daily Value" for total fat and simply add up these percentages. It's recommended that fat make up no more than 30 percent of your daily diet (meaning less than or equal to 30 percent of total calories a day from fat).

Although it is important to watch both calories and fat grams, it's best to focus on  the total number of calories consumed, which often seems to be forgotten. With the introduction of low-fat and fat-free versions of many common foods, you'd expect people to lose weight. Instead, many are either staying at the same weight or even gaining weight. Sometimes you can eat more of these foods than their full-fat versions for the same number of calories. However, sometimes low-fat foods contain more sugar than their full-fat cousins, and hence as many calories per serving. Ultimately, if you eat more calories than your body expends, regardless of whether these calories come from fat, protein, or carbohydrates, you will gain weight. Unused energy is converted and stored as excess body fat.

The amount of calories a person needs is based on body weight, age, gender and physical activity level. Generally, 1200 to 1400 calories per day is considered low, and anything above 2400 is considered too much. To find out how many calories you should be getting a day, check out the MyPlate website. This USDA-sponsored site will ask you to input your age, gender, weight, height and physical activity level in order to determine what caloric intake will be right for you. You can also check out Ideal Caloric Intake? in the Go Ask Alice! archives for more information on calorie counting.

Alice

Ginkgo biloba and physiological impotence?

Dear Reader,

Some people swear by Ginkgo biloba, calling it a miracle herb with the power to fix anything from Alzheimer's to erectile dysfunction. But what are the facts? Scientifically speaking the data is less clear.

According to available research, Ginkgo has been used effectively to improve cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, as well as to improve memory in healthy adults and to treat peripheral vascular disease. Though it shows some potential with sexual dysfunction, the results have been mixed. In fact, Ginkgo’s effectiveness appears to be limited to relieving sexual dysfunction that is caused by selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) anti-depressants and not more generalized physiological causes. Some of ginkgo’s success with treating sexual dysfunction is believed to be the result of the placebo effect.

Though ginkgo is considered safe, there are some side effects such as headache, nausea, upset stomach, vomiting, and irritations around the mouth. Because of ginkgo’s ability to thin the blood, experts advise that you not take ginkgo if you are currently taking medication for diabetes, aspirin, ibuprofen or anticoagulant drugs such as heparin and warfarin. Doctors also advise caution to patients with bleeding disorders or those who are taking drugs, herbs (such as garlic, ginseng and red clover), or supplements that may increase the risk of bleeding.

Ginko biloba is usually sold as an extract because many of the plants parts, including its seeds, are considered poisonous and their consumption could lead to seizures and death. You may want to avoid these altogether.

Overall, Ginkgo could work for you either through the placebo effect or because of actual biochemical interactions — it just might not be your best bet. If you are interested in help with impotence you may want to speak with a health care provider. S/he can help you determine possible causes, the best treatment options, as well as answer any other questions you may have about Ginkgo biloba and its effects. Columbia students on the Morningside campus can make an appointment with Medical Services using Open Communicator or by calling 212-854-2284. Columbia students at the Medical Center can make an appointment with Student Health by calling 212-305-3400.

Alice

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