Optimal Nutrition

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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

Is juice as good as whole fruit?

Dear Joyful Juicer,

Juicers can be a great low calorie, high nutrient, tasty treat. However, they don’t generally carry all the benefits of eating the original fruit or veggie from whence it came.

If you've made juice, you know that it takes a lot of fruit to make a container of juice. Usually, juicers extract the juice and some pulp from fruits and/or vegetables. You’ll get all of the vitamins, minerals, beneficial plant chemicals (phytochemicals), and carbohydrates in juice that's extracted from a whole fruit. However, you won’t get much of the fiber, and depending on the fruit, you may not get any of it.

Fiber aids in the digestive process. It acts sort of like a scrub brush for your intestines and speeds up the movement of waste through your system. It also can fill you up, and may help protect against certain cancers. Fiber in fruit is found in the membranes between sections, the white part around the outside (as in oranges and grapefruits), the seeds, the skin, and the peels. For example, orange juice contains no fiber (even if it has pulp) because the fiber is found in the membrane, which is lost during the process of juicing.

It is also important to remember that juice is not a low calorie drink. An eight ounce glass of orange juice contains 110 calories — the equivalent of two oranges (each contains about 60 calories). But you won't feel as filled up from juice since it doesn't contain any fiber. For many people, drinking a caloric beverage, such as juice, isn't as satisfying as eating the same amount of calories in food. For those who need to increase caloric intake — such as athletes, children, or teens — juice is a great choice.

Fresh juice is certainly tasty and an excellent source of many nutrients. Less stable vitamins, such as vitamin C, are not compromised in fresh juice as they may be in some processed varieties. Also, watch for added sugar in many processed juices that can increase caloric content.

In general, juice is just fine. But if fiber’s what you’re after, go for the whole fruit or veggie over the liquefied form. Happy juicing!

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

Importance of eating breakfast

Dear Breakfast Boycotter,

Your brain (and central nervous system) run on glucose — that's the fuel you need to think, walk, talk, and carry on any and all activities. Let's say that the last time you eat something at night is at 10 or 11 PM (not optimal, just an example). The following day, you don't eat breakfast but wait until about noon or so to eat — you've gone thirteen or fourteen hours with nothing in your system. Your poor brain is surely deprived — and your body has to work extra hard to break down any stored carbohydrate or turn fat or protein into a usable form for your brain to function. That's a lot to ask for when you're sitting in a classroom, trying to concentrate on reading, or doing any other work. Eating breakfast has been proven (many times) to improve concentration, problem solving ability, mental performance, memory, and mood. You will certainly be at a disadvantage if your classmates have eaten breakfast and you've gone without. On average, they will think faster and clearer, and will have better recall than you. School or work can be tough enough without this extra added pressure.

Breakfast skippers also have a harder time fitting important nutrients into their diet. Many foods eaten at breakfast contain significant amounts of vitamins C and D, calcium, iron, and fiber.

Some people believe that skipping breakfast may help them lose weight. Not so! Skipping meals often leads to overeating later in the day. Becoming overhungry often leads to a lack of control and distorted satiety signals (meaning it's hard to determine when you're full). This can result in taking in more calories than if one had an appropriate breakfast. As a matter of fact, it's easier to control one's weight by eating smaller meals and snacks more frequently.

What if there's just no time in the morning to eat breakfast? There are plenty of items you can bring along with you to school or work. Carry a resealable bag of easy-to-eat whole grain cereal, or bring a yogurt or small box of skim milk, juice, or fruit. If you just can't stomach food in the morning, try to have a little something — such as some juice — and bring along a mid-morning snack. Other good portable items include: whole grain crackers, a hard boiled egg, cottage cheese, low-fat granola bars, or even a peanut butter sandwich. Single serving hot cereals, such as oatmeal, are handy — all you have to do is add hot water, available at most cafeterias or delis.

Whatever your choice, eat something. If you think you're doing fine with no breakfast, just try changing your tune for a week —you're likely to notice a difference. You will undoubtedly perform better with some fuel in your system, and, hopefully, become a breakfast believer.

Alice

Avocados are fatty — are they healthy?

Dear Guacamole,

No need to pause that chip in midair, or order sushi sans avocado! Avocados are indeed high in fat, but they're high in monounsaturated fat, the good fat, the kind of fat that may actually help lower blood cholesterol levels. And as you rightly said, avocados contain no cholesterol — no plant foods do.

You may have heard the term low-density lipoproteins (LDL) in the discussion of different types of cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is often referred to as bad cholesterol because when the body has too much it can form plaque on the walls of arteries and veins which can cause heart attack or stroke. In contrast, high-density lipoproteins (HDL) clear the blood stream and artery walls of LDL and transport it to the liver where it can be broken down and eliminated. Lowering LDL and increasing HDL is considered desirable in terms of preventing heart disease and stroke. The good news in terms of those tasty avocados is that eating monounsaturated fats, especially while decreasing intake of carbohydrates and saturated fats, may decrease levels of LDL and raise HDL cholesterol.

The American Heart Association recommends that total fat intake be kept to 25 to 35 percent of your daily calories and that saturated fat comprise less than seven percent of total daily calories. That means the remaining fat should come from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat sources like nuts, seeds, fish and vegetable oils. Translated into layman's terms this would mean that a typical 2,000 calorie a day diet would include 50 to 70 grams of fat, with about 34 to 50 grams of that fat from poly- or monounsaturated sources and about 16 grams or less from saturated sources. Because it's hard to keep track of exactly how many grams of fat are coming from which sources, it's a good rule of thumb to choose unsaturated over saturated fats whenever presented the option. Saturated fats come from animal products like meat, seafood, milk, butter, cheese, and ice cream. Monounsaturated fats come from vegetarian sources like nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, olives, and, drum roll please… avocados.

In addition to containing healthful fat, avocados are also high in beta carotene, fiber, folate (a B vitamin), and potassium (ounce for ounce, avocados have 60 percent more potassium than bananas). To put the fat in perspective, avocados have less fat than lean beef per ounce, and a whole Haas avocado has less fat than 3 tablespoons of Italian salad dressing. While it's a good idea to take all fats in moderation, rather than shun the guacamole bowl at the party, help yourself to some of the green gooeyness, along with plenty of veggies, fruits, and whole grains. Enjoy!

Alice

Bananas = fat?

Dear Banana Lover,

Nutritionally, bananas are packed with many good things. To get right to your question, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), one medium banana contains only 0.39 grams of fat. Compare that to a California avocado that has 21 grams of fat (with 3 grams of saturated fat). Like protein and carbohydrates, fat is an important macronutrient that plays a vital role in maintaining health. So while you don’t have to eschew avocados and olives, you can rest assured that eating a banana will provide some low-fat satisfaction in a balanced diet.

Bananas make a healthy and helpful snack choice for endurance athletes (and others) because they have higher carbohydrate content when compared to other fruits (by weight). They also provide a good source of potassium, which is vital for controlling the body's fluid balance, and regulating one's heartbeat and blood pressure, and preventing muscle cramping.

Think of it this way, if a contest called for designing an ideal food, you might just come up with a banana. They are neat (they come in their own wrapper!), they ripen best after harvest, they can be eaten at various stages of ripeness, there is a good supply all year, they tend to be inexpensive, and almost everyone can digest them. Chew on this, in an average year Americans consume about 25 pounds of bananas per person.

Perhaps you can help spread the word that people should just enjoy having their bananas and eating them, too!

Alice

Food Guidelines — How much is a serving?

Dear Trying to Eat Healthy,

Knowing what and how much to eat can feel overwhelming. In recognition of the fact that more Americans are overweight and obese than ever before, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)/U.S. Department of Health and Human Services regularly reviews and updates the food guide recommendations. The newest update by "Choose My Plate" and makes suggestions based on age, gender, and activity level. It no longer recommends amounts of food in terms of serving size, but rather suggests portions according to actual weights and amounts of specific foods. You can learn more about how to apply the new food guide recommendations to your lifestyle at ChooseMyPlate.gov.

Even though there is no single chart that details how much of a particular food constitutes a serving, you can click on each food group's heading (see below) for more information on common portion sizes. Also, here's a basic breakdown of the guidelines:

Grains
One serving equals 1 slice of bread; 1/2 cup of cooked rice, pasta, or cereal; or 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal. All of these serving sizes are known as "ounce equivalents" in Choose My Plate-speak.

As a general rule of thumb,
1 serving size/ounce equivalent of bread = plastic CD case
2 servings/ounce equivalents of cooked brown rice = a tennis ball

Vegetables
Unlike the Grains group described above, cup size matters when it comes to vegetables. That is, vegetables servings are measured in cups rather than ounces. One serving equals 1/2 cup of raw or cooked vegetables or vegetable juice or 1 cup of leafy raw vegetables.

1 serving size = 1/2 cup of broccoli = a light bulb
1 serving size = 1/2 cup of potato = a computer mouse

Fruits
Like the vegetable group, cup size matters here, too. One serving equals 1 cup of fruit or 100 percent fruit juice, or 1/2 cup of dried fruit. Because fruits come in so many different shapes and sizes, it's hard to say how many pieces of fruit count as a serving.

Generally, 1 serving size of whole fruit = 1 tennis ball
1 serving size of cut fruit = 7 cotton balls

Dairy
One serving equals 1 cup of milk or yogurt, 1.5 to 2 ounces of cheese, and even 1.5 cups of ice cream. Choose low-fat options from this group whenever possible.

1 serving size of cheese = 2 9-volt batteries

Protein
Like the Grains group, serving sizes are also measured in ounce equivalents. One serving or ounce equivalent equals 1 ounce of cooked lean meat, poultry, or fish; 1/4 cup cooked beans; 1 egg; 1 tablespoon of peanut butter; or 1/2 ounce of nuts or seeds.

3 servings/ounce equivalents of fish = 1 checkbook
3 servings/ounce equivalents of meat or poultry = 1 deck of cards
2 servings/ounce equivalents of peanut butter = 1 roll of 35 mm film or 1 ping-pong ball

Oils
Choosemyplate.gov measures serving sizes in teaspoons.

1 serving/teaspoon of margarine and spreads = 1 dice
2 serving/teaspoons of salad dressing = 1 thumb tip

Because these oils are found in many of the foods we eat, there may not be a need to add this group to your diet. For example, half of a medium avocado or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter provide 3 and 4 teaspoons or servings of oil respectively, while also counting towards your vegetable or nuts allowance.

Remember, also, that most portions in the U.S. are oversized and contain several servings of the recommended categories. Ideally you want most of your food to be whole grains, plenty of fruits and vegetables, low-fat calcium fortified foods (such as milk and cottage cheese), and lean sources of protein (such as fish, turkey, and chicken).

If you're hungry for more information on dietary recommendations, check out the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 and the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Food and Nutrition Information web site. At Columbia, you can make an appointment with a registered dietitian to discuss your concerns and get more individualized information by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).

Alice

Risks of aspartame?

Dear Diet Coke,

Aspartame — how sweet it is! A common artificial sweetener used in various foods and drinks, aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than sugar. However, it contains fewer calories than sugar, making it a substitute for individuals who wish to cut back on sugar. To date, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers aspartame safe to use, though it recommends maximum levels of acceptable daily intake (ADI) for children and adults.

An adult weighing 150 pounds (70 kilograms) can have up to 3,500 milligrams per day of aspartame. In terms of diet soda, this translates into no more than 19 cans of diet soda per day (diet soda typically contains 180 milligrams of aspartame per can). A child who typically weighs 66 pounds (30 kilograms) could drink up to 8 cans of diet soda before going over the ADI for children. That's still quite a lot of soda! There may be other considerations, such as caffeine and the acid in soda that can damage teeth, to weigh before drinking a case a day.

There is no conclusive data demonstrating that aspartame poses a safety risk to humans. However, the FDA has noted some possible, but uncommon, side effects of aspartame consumption. These complaints have included headaches, dizziness, stomach problems, and changes in mood. One particular safety risk of aspartame involves individuals with phenylketonuria (PKU). PKU is a rare genetic disease characterized by the inability to break down the amino acid phenylalanine, which is found in aspartame. People with PKU should avoid all products that contain aspartame. These products are labeled for easier recognition.

You may want to keep in mind that aspartame and other artificial sweeteners are not exactly a green light to consume excessive amounts of foods and drinks that contain it, as the calories still add up. Research suggests artificial sweeteners may stimulate a person's appetite. Because they have no caloric content, they don't seem to activate the same food reward signals in the brain that induce feelings of satiety. As a result, craving a sweet flavor after eating artificially sweetened foods but not feeling full or satisfied by them may lead to overeating.

If you are concerned about the safety of aspartame, you can always check the labels of the foods and drinks before you buy them. You may also want to consider discussing any concerns with a health care provider, who may be able to suggest other sweetening alternatives. If you are a student at Columbia, you can make an appointment to see a health care provider by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).

Here's hoping that this response didn't sugarcoat your concerns!

Alice

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