Optimal Nutrition

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Helping a friend to eat healthier

Dear In a quandary,

Your friend definitely isn't alone, but in order for her to change her behaviors or ingrained patterns, she needs to acknowledge that a problem exists, or see a benefit from making a change. Because food and eating habits are such a personal aspect of our lives, it can be a sensitive area of discussion. To answer your first question, diets that are high in fat, sodium, and calories, and low in fruits, veggies, calcium, and other nutrients, may contribute to the development of diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and osteoporosis, among others. If this factor is a concern to your friend, she may consider changing her patterns. However, if she is healthy now, the thought of developing any of these conditions in the far off future may not be motivation enough for her in the present time to change habits with which she's been comfortable.

One thing is for sure — criticizing and nagging don't work! So, what can you do? First of all, you can suggest spending time together doing some sort of activity. If you can get your friend moving, she may become interested in eating more healthfully. Try to disguise exercise into a fun pursuit. Some ideas include:

  • Going for a walk
  • Swimming
  • Hiking
  • Bike riding
  • Flying a kite
  • Playing Frisbee
  • ice skating
  • Borrowing a dog to bring to the park (or bringing your own) and playing ball

Another tact you can try is to determine something that is important to her, and show her that eating better can help improve the matter. While many people aren't motivated by diseases they can't relate to or that seem intangible, immediate concerns can hold more relevance. For example, skin problems, low energy levels, or stomach discomfort can promote a greater incentive or inclination to change. If she complains about any of these conditions, some appropriate suggestions could include drinking more water than diet soda, substituting a juicy piece of fruit for the chips, or heading over to an enticing salad bar rather than making a quick trip for fast food. Considering and implementing any changes or new patterns are only part of the challenge; maintenance is also key, and can be easier to follow-through when done together with a peer than by one's self. Your can demonstrate your support by bringing over some farm fresh apples, cooking a healthy meal together, going to lunch together at an eatery where healthy choices are available, walking together regularly during lunch breaks, etc.

Remember, gentle suggestions are better received than harsh criticism. Advice that begins with "You should..." may fall on deaf ears. Instead you can try to initiate a discussion, saying something like, "You know, I just read an article that said drinking water is important for keeping skin healthy... and I'm drinking more water as a result." Having a conversation about this subject may get your friend to think, and perhaps try, to take steps leading to healthier patterns of eating and activity. Then again, she may decide not to pursue anything at this time. If this is the case, you can express your concern to your friend, and let her know that if she would ever like to pursue healthier eating habits you are ready to support her. In the mean time, remember why you're friends in the first place and enjoy your time together!

Alice

November 7, 2008

21262

To the reader:

I think you could try to teach your friend about enjoying healthy food. It only works if you are subtle, so work in small steps. Try inviting her over for dinner and cooking...

To the reader:

I think you could try to teach your friend about enjoying healthy food. It only works if you are subtle, so work in small steps. Try inviting her over for dinner and cooking a healthier version of pizza or lasagne or some other food she might recogize. Or take her out for a healthy but filling meal at a good quality restaurant (Italian is often good for this). By doing this the aim is to lead by example: show her that healthy food tastes great, fills you up and can contribute to a fun meal, as well as being good for you. Then she will see that living a healthy lifestyle needn't be torture, in fact it is something that a lot of people (chefs, gourmet food lovers, etc.) deliberately seek! Good Luck!

Food preservatives and additives

Dear Jeeeeaaan,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope this provides you with lots of useful information,

Alice

Hints for holiday stomach stuffers

Dear Stuffed,

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

Before the meal:

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

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

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

Some food for thought while you chew:

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

Actions to take after the holiday repast:

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

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

Happy Holidays!

Alice

Still can't control cravings for sweets

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

Alice

July 20, 2012

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

March 20, 2012

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

February 23, 2012

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

November 19, 2007

21364
Dear Alice and Reader,

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

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

July 25, 2003

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

Good vs. bad fats

Dear Curious,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice

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

For more information or to make an appointment, check out these recommended resources:

get balanced! Guide for Healthier Eating

Nutrition Services (Morningside)

Student Health Service (CUMC)


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

Iron, calcium, and constipation, oh my!

Dear Calcium and Iron Maiden,

It seems like you're approaching a supplement regimen with a healthy consideration of various factors like absorption and affects on your system — a great idea! You're right that there are certain foods that can inhibit iron absorption, like the oxalic acid in spinach, phosphates primarily in milk, other dairy products, and egg whites, phytates in beans, and tannins in tea and coffee. While it would take a lot of these foods to seriously impair your ability to absorb iron, you might want to consider going easy on them while trying to boost iron levels.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are many foods that are rich in iron, and it's usually preferable to get your essential nutrients from food rather than supplements. The body has an easier time digesting and absorbing nutrients like iron and calcium in the amounts and forms in which they occur naturally. You can check out Sources of Iron in Alice's Fitness & Nutrition archives for a list of these iron-boosting foods (sneak preview: meat, fish, dark leafy greens, dried beans, and nuts are all healthy iron-rich foods). Another dietary tactic to boost iron absorption is to eat a vitamin C rich food with your iron-rich food or supplement, as vitamin C aids in iron absorption. For example, eating citrus (oranges, grapefruits, lemons) along with your spinach salad will help unlock the iron in spinach. You can also cook your food in cast iron pots and pans to enrich your food with iron.

In terms of your sensitive GI system, the least constipating iron formula is hydrolyzed protein chelate, but again, diet can come into play here. In addition to looking for gentle and non-constipating types of iron supplements, you can also alleviate constipation by drinking plenty of water and by eating fibrous foods like whole grains, fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, and other foods as unprocessed as you can find them (whole grain bread instead of white, whole grain pasta instead of white, brown rice instead of white). It's a good idea to increase fiber intake slowly — too much too soon can cause gas and bloating. And to underscore again, when increasing fiber it's important to drink even more water than you think you need to make sure all that bulk moves through your system smoothly.

As for calcium, the two most common forms in supplements are calcium citrate and calcium carbonate. Studies show that calcium citrate is the most absorbable supplement form, and may be taken between or with meals. Vitamin D helps to assimilate calcium into bones. When exposed to sufficient sunlight, the human body synthesizes its own vitamin D. Fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and sardines are great food sources of vitamin D. If you want a D supplement, which might be a good idea for folks who live in northern climates and don't get adequate sun exposure during the winter, or for people who don't eat a lot of fish, look for supplements that contain vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), rather than vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) — vitamin D3 is more potent. You might also want to consider taking a magnesium supplement with your calcium at a ration of two-parts calcium to one part magnesium, as magnesium is needed to fully absorb and utilize calcium.

Finally, see if you can avoid taking your calcium and iron supplements together, as they compete for absorption. It may seem like a lot of juggling of different foods, supplements, and timing of the two, but hopefully this kind of careful consideration and knowledge will boost your iron and calcium levels to new heights.

Farewell, fair Iron (and calcium) Maiden,

Alice

Energy bars

Dear Power Me Up,

Sports bars, energy bars, power bars — call them what you like — a variety of these products are available at grocery stores and in vending machines. Marketing for these bars may have you believing that they can work wonders: some purported benefits include burning of fat, buildup of muscle, and improved athletic performance. In terms of nutritional benefits — well, that all depends on what benefits you are looking for.

All energy bars provide energy because energy — in the pure sense of the word — refers to calories. As a matter of fact, energy bars were first developed for endurance athletes who had difficulty taking in enough calories to sustain them during their athletic endeavors. True, they are a quick and convenient form of energy or calories. But will these bars energize you? Probably not. If you haven't eaten in a while and are feeling slightly fatigued, one of these bars may help take away that sluggishness, but so would a slice of whole wheat toast and a cup of skim milk or juice. However, if you're exhausted due to lack of sleep (for example), an energy bar won't give you any more pep.

On the nutrition tip, some energy bars contain over 400 calories (more than in many candy bars) and up to ten grams of fat. For many people, this may be more than they need or want to take in before exercising. Many energy bars do contain added vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other important substances, but they are not meal replacements. They do not contain the natural fibers, phytochemicals, and high quality protein found in less-processed foods. For a fraction of the cost, and just as convenient to eat, consider some other snacking options:

  • Granola bars (read the labels, some granola bars have loads of added sugars)
  • Bananas
  • Oranges
  • Carrot sticks
  • Juice
  • Skim milk
  • Low-fat yogurt
  • Whole grain crackers
  • Graham crackers
  • Mini-bagels

Energy bars aren't a replacement for a healthy lifestyle; it's still important to eat a balanced diet, sleep, manage stress, and be physically active in order to achieve optimum performance. So rather than banking on bars, be a smart consumer: consider your caloric needs, choose to eat a balanced diet, read energy bar labels carefully (check for caloric, fat, and sugar content and think how they fit in with your overall diet), and don't be fooled by all the hype.

More power to ya,

Alice

How can I eat well at college?

Dear Confused and College Bound,

You are not alone with your concerns. Going to college is a big step in a person's life involving major changes. You and those around you may be living on your own for the first time, making decisions on a buffet of issues, including what to eat.

Eating healthy at college is possible. Many college dining services are offering more healthy choices and are often quite receptive to students' concerns and dietary preferences. But, this is only part of the challenge. In an environment where time, friends, and finances may combine in new ways, having options available only solves some of the puzzle. It's important to experiment with what works best for you. For example, that traditional idea of three square meals a day has been updated with a more contemporary concept of eating five smaller meals spread throughout the day. Steer clear of diets or fads, especially those that drastically limit a particular nutrient. Remember, balance, moderation, and variety win out over trendy and extreme. For some practical tips, navigate through the many options on Choosemyplate.gov. Columbia students can also take advantage of the resources from the get balanced! initiative. Plan ahead when possible so you don't have to rely on vending machines when you're hungry; think of ways to incorporate fruits, vegetables, and whole grains on a daily basis. Eating more of these will fill you up and possibly even enhance your already stellar brain power.

Making time for physical activity is important, too. Most college fitness centers have a variety of movement classes and options. When the weather is right, grab a friend and walk, run, bike, or blade outdoors. If you are Columbia affiliated, you can connect with the CU Move initiative.  CU Move encourages members of the Columbia community to engage in active lives that include regular physical activity. The program provides participants with motivation, incentives to be active throughout the year, and event calendars with access to plenty of free and low-cost physical activity options on campus and around NYC. 

Now, to address the second part of your question: an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, is less about food, eating, and body weight. It has more to do with mental health, emotional, physical, socio-cultural, and family issues. If this is a particular concern of yours, you might want to take a look at Eating disorders vs. normal eating. Additionally, if you are a Columbia student, you can make an appointment with a health care provider or a registered dietitian to discuss your concerns by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).

Give yourself some time to adjust to a new environment and ask for help when you need it. Everything in moderation, even moderation. 

Enjoy your time at college,

Alice

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