Optimal Nutrition

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How to eat your veggies, even if you don't like them

Dear Reader,

Eating fruits and vegetables is an essential part of maintaining good health. In 2011, the USDA launched its most recent food guide called Choose My Plate. Most health professionals and health promotion organizations, including the USDA, recommend eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Or, in the case of the Choose My Plate campaign, make half of your plate fruits and vegetables.

Since eating vegetables is not very appealing to you, let's start by discussing ways to incorporate some essential vitamins and minerals into your diet via fruit. Look to a wide variety of fruits to take in more vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, which are plant substances that may ward off heart disease and certain forms of cancer. For example, a fruit salad composed of oranges, assorted berries, grapes, kiwi, bananas, apples, and peaches with fresh lime juice squeezed over it can be enjoyed as a delicious part of any meal or on its own as a snack. A piece of fruit, such as an apple or a pear, is also an excellent dessert and can be paired with protein, such as nut butter or cheese, to make a well balanced snack.

Now let's move to the incorporation of vegetables in a positive way. Vegetables can taste bitter, particularly when eaten raw. A good place to begin may be experimenting with roasting a few different vegetables to see what you may like. Roasting vegetables brings out their sweetness via a process called caramelization, which reveals the sugars in vegetables, causing them to taste sweeter. This works particularly well with root vegetables, such as onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, and carrots. To roast vegetables, simply cut them into one-inch squares, toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper, place on a baking sheet, and put in an oven at 450 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, tossing and turning throughout cooking. You will know they are done when they are golden brown, slightly crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside. Broccoli and cauliflower are also delicious when roasted. Feel free to experiment by adding grated parmesan or other cheeses, herbs, and spices to the vegetables after roasting. You can also look to "sweeter" vegetables, such as corn, peas, tomatoes, and carrots and incorporate them into pasta or rice dishes or put them together to make a salad. The get balanced! nutrition initiative offers some recipes to get you started, such as the Cilantro Corn Tomato Salad.

It is also possible to disguise vegetables in your food, similar to the way some parents do when their children don't eat their veggies. This is typically done using vegetable purees, which can be made at home simply by microwaving a vegetable and then pureeing it, or can be found in the freezer section (most often found are pureed sweet potatoes or squash) or as jars of baby food in the children's section of your grocery store. Purees can be added to stew, soup, pasta sauce, baked goods, etc.; the options are endless. There are several good cookbooks available that offer recipes that incorporate vegetable purees. You can also sneak in an extra veggie by making fruit smoothies with spinach added in — all you'll taste is the fruit!

In addition to purees, you can also incorporate vegetables into other foods. Examples include:

  • Make omelets with tomatoes, peppers, and/or mushrooms — be sure to sauté the vegetables first before adding the eggs.
  • Add broccoli and/or olives to your pizza.
  • Add chopped spinach and/or grated carrots and onions to turkey burgers or meatloaf.
  • Mix chopped carrot and celery into tuna or chicken salad.
  • Choose soups rich in vegetables, such as Minestrone or Gumbo.
  • Add peas, carrots, and/or zucchini to rice pilaf.

It's difficult to "force" yourself into liking a specific food, especially if you are turned off by the taste. Luckily, you can choose from a variety of vegetable options and cooking methods. Keep an open mind (and mouth), and perhaps you will come to enjoy some of these foods!

For more tips about healthy eating, fruits, and vegetables, check out the Optimal Nutrition section of the Go Ask Alice! archive, learn more about the tools from Choosemyplate.gov.

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


Milk — Bad or good?

Dear Cow lover,

Why does a milking stool have only three legs? Because the cow has the udder! Get it? Unfortunately, there’s not such a definitive answer to YOUR question. Research on the health effects of drinking milk has produced mixed results. As with any other food group, it is important to consider the pros and cons of dairy consumption.

Before a discussion of pros and cons, here is a run-down on recent milk research as it relates to osteoporosis. Although it is thought that drinking milk every day helps ward off osteoporosis, a small group of renowned researchers recently found that drinking too much milk can actually contribute to calcium loss. This is because the high amount of protein in milk thins blood and tissue, causing it to become acidic. In order to neutralize the acidity, the body draws out calcium from bones. As a result, the more milk you consume, the more calcium you need to process the protein intake. With that being said, drinking moderate amounts of milk each day (500 to 700 milligrams daily) is still thought to be good for your bones. More information on osteoporosis can be found in Calcium, milk, and osteoporosis?.

Moooving on, here is a list of the various pros and cons of drinking milk:

Pros:

  • Milk is high in calcium, which is important for healthy bones. Additionally, the calcium in milk is well absorbed by the digestive tract because the vitamin D and lactose found in milk facilitate calcium absorption. Still, it's possible to get ample calcium without drinking dairy milk — by eating foods such as tofu, soy milk, or greens such as kale. See Calcium — how much is enough? for more information.
  • Whole milk is brimming with protein, which is beneficial for muscle growth.
  • Studies have shown that drinking milk can help regulate weight gain.
  • Skim milk is very low in fat and cholesterol, and is a complete source of protein.
  • Milk is also a good source of phosphorous, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin D, and riboflavin (a B vitamin).

Cons:                          

  • Whole milk is high in saturated fat, which can increase cholesterol level.
  • Milk is a common cause of food allergy (allergy to milk protein).
  • Many people lack the enzyme to digest lactose (milk sugar). This is called lactose intolerance, which causes bloating, gas, and diarrhea.
  • Milk may contain the antibiotics given to the cow while it is lactating. It has been argued that humans subsequently absorb these antibiotics upon drinking milk, potentially leading harmful bacteria to become more resistant to these antibiotics. As a result, when antibiotics are prescribed, they may not be as effective at killing the bacteria.
  • Some research has found a correlation between drinking milk that is produced by cows injected with the bovine growth hormone (rBST) and cancer. However, research shows highly mixed results.

As a side note, if you are concerned about the possible effects of antibiotics and rBST on your body, it is possible to buy antibiotic-free (and typically hormone-free, as well) milk from specialty grocers that carry natural foods. Alternatively, you can purchase USDA-certified organic milk, which is available at most supermarkets.

Overall, when researching the pros and cons of milk, it is important to take into account that there are two opposing sides — one that believes that milk is great for the body, and another that believes that milk does not aid against osteoporosis and is even harmful for the body. Whatever camp you choose to join, it is important to be informed. Seize every opportunity (to obtain information), and milk it for all its worth!

Alice

Melatonin — alleviates jet lag?

Dear Reader,

While jetting cross-country can be a fun adventure, coping with jet lag is often an unwelcome effect. Jet lag is a temporary disorder that occurs when air travelers rapidly travel across three or more time zones. Traversing time zones appears to interfere with a person's production of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate our sleep-wake cycles (see Melatonin from the Go Ask Alice! archives for more information). This may explain why jet travel disrupts our sleeping patterns and why it takes a while for us to adjust to a new time zone. Travelers have the option of taking melatonin to help counteract the effects that flying has on getting a good night's sleep.

Taking melatonin to reduce jet lag is a well-tested and safe use of the hormone. When the goal is to be in bed and asleep during the normal nighttime hours of your destination, timing is everything. If you take melatonin at the wrong time while still at home in New York, you may land safely in London, but your inner clock may  be wandering around the Los Angeles airport wondering how it got on the wrong flight! So, what's the trick?

The secret to shifting your internal clock lies in the direction of your flight and duration of your journey. Travelers who cross three or more time zones generally require more time to adjust. Depending on your travel direction, it is recommended to take melatonin as follows:

  • Westward travel is associated with early evening sleepiness and predawn awakening. When traveling westward, melatonin can be taken in the morning.
  • Traveling to the east is associated with struggling to fall asleep at the destination bedtime and difficulty arising in the morning. In this case, it is best to take melatonin in the evening at your local time.
  • Melatonin can be taken 30 minutes before sleeping. You can also ask your health care provider about the right time to take it.
  • Though side effects are uncommon, it is a good idea to avoid alcohol when using melatonin.

The severity of jet lag is also dependent on whether a person is able to sleep while traveling, their age, and the availability of local circadian time cues at the destination (such as natural sunlight). Other than taking melatonin, your health care provider may recommend that you:

  • Avoid alcohol, large meals, and caffeinated beverages during travel
  • Eat meals at the appropriate time of your destination
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Sleep, if possible, during long flights
  • Consider timed bright light exposure prior to and during travel
  • Take sleep-inducing medications, such as zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta) and zaleplon (Sonata), during travel and to help you sleep during the first couple of days after your arrival

While adjusting to a new time zone may seem like a drag, don't worry, for your body will adjust in due time. Jet lag may last for several days, but it is a temporary condition that is normally manageable. Whether or not you choose to take melatonin depends on the severity of your jet lag and your preference to induce sleep. In the meantime, don't forget to adjust your watch as well. Happy (and restful) travels!

Alice

Non-meat proteins

Dear Veggie,

As vegetarianism, veganism, and even just eating less meat become more popular dietary and lifestyle choices for a growing number of people, adequate protein sources are always a topic of discussion. There have been scores of arguments about protein in all its facets: how much you need, what kinds are most useful to the body, and how to prepare it. But what it comes down to is: every body is different, has different needs, and digests foods uniquely, so the best non-meat sources of protein for one person might be the worst for someone else.

The recommended daily protein intake for healthy adults is about 0.4 grams per pound of body weight. Vegans (those who avoid all animal products, including dairy and eggs) may require a bit more at 0.5 grams per pound of body weight. Protein facilitates growth, metabolism, immune system functioning, repair, muscle contraction, and the transmission of nerve impulses and hormones in the body. It can also be a source of energy when the body runs out of carbohydrates and fat for fuel. And protein's not that hard to find, even for vegetarians. Almost every food contains protein: nuts, seeds, beans, soy products (tofu, soy milk, tempeh), grains (wheat, oats, rice), eggs, and dairy products all being excellent vegetarian sources (many of which tend to be low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium).

The list below gives the protein content of some of the highest protein and/or most popular vegetarian foods:

  • Tempeh — 1 cup — 31 g
  • Lentils — 1 cup — 18 g
  • Chickpeas — 1 cup — 15 g
  • Tofu (firm) — 4 oz — 11 g
  • Peanut butter — 2 tbsp — 8 g
  • Soymilk — 1 cup — 7 g
  • Soy yogurt — 1 cup — 6 g
  • Whole wheat bread — 2 slices — 7 g
  • Broccoli, cooked — 1 cup — 4 g

Protein is a macronutrient made up of smaller parts, called amino acids. There are different amino acids, many of which the body can produce, but nine which the body cannot. These nine must be eaten, and are therefore called essential. Animal proteins contain all nine of these essential amino acids in appropriate proportions, while the proteins found in plants often do not. Plant-based sources of protein have various amounts of amino acids in them. As such, it was previously thought that certain ‘complimentary proteins’ or combinations of plant-based proteins were needed in order to get all essential amino acids. However, rather than planning specific food combos at each meal, eating a variety of plant-based proteins over the course of a day should ensure that you get the essential amino acids you need.

You might find it helpful to consult with a registered dietitian if you want a more specific evaluation of your diet and unique nutritional needs. Columbia students can contact Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC) to schedule an appointment. There is also a wealth of information online about vegetarian recipes, philosophies, and nutritional facts about specific foods.

People decide to eat less meat or no meat for myriad reasons that include health, animal rights, environmental sustainability, and religion. You can rest assured that your decision will further any or all of these goals without depriving you of the protein you need. Enjoy!

Alice

Very low protein diet — Good for health?

Dear SMS,

Beans, seafood, poultry, meat, and eggs. These are just a few sources for protein. Our bodies need protein for numerous functions. Hemoglobin, which carries oxygen, is an essential protein that gives blood its red color when oxygenated. Antibodies, which act as defenders against disease, are composed of proteins. Hormones, some of which are made from amino acids (the building blocks of protein), regulate many systems in our bodies. These include the regulation of metabolism, digestion, and nutrient absorption, and the concentration of blood glucose. Proteins are also used by our cells to regulate the distribution of water and the movement of nutrients in and out of cells, particularly since proteins are one of the components of cell membranes. Furthermore, proteins are involved in blood clotting, acid-base balance, and visual pigmentation.

Considering we need protein to help our bodies carry out and sustain essential physiological functions, a diet very low in protein is obviously not a good idea. The good news is that it is not difficult to obtain sufficient protein from our diet and most Americans have no trouble doing so. Dietary protein can be obtained from animal and vegetable sources. If your diet is insufficient in protein, you could also be deficient in many important vitamins and minerals found in protein-rich foods. Deficiencies could occur in niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, B-12, B-6, iron, zinc, and calcium, among others, depending on what foods are missing from your diet. The effects of prolonged low protein in the diet would eventually manifest themselves as impaired immune function, and irregularities in other bodily functions and systems described above.

The Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for protein are as follows:


Recommended Dietary Allowance for Protein
  Grams of protein needed each day
Children ages 1 - 3 13
Children ages 4 - 8 19
Children ages 9 - 13 34
Girls ages 14 - 18 46
Boys ages 14 - 18 52
Women ages 19 - 70+ 46
Men ages 19 - 70+ 56

Table via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Protein recommendations vary from individual to individual depending on her/his amount of lean body mass.

As you can see, proteins are an integral and necessary part of our functioning.  Animal sources, such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, contain complete proteins — all the amino acids our bodies require to form the proteins we need. Vegetable sources, such as nuts, seeds, legumes (beans, peas, lentils, and soy products), grains (breads and cereals), and green leafy vegetables, contain incomplete proteins. This means that not all of the amino acids are found in one food. Mother Nature is tricky — the amino acids absent in some foods are present in others. Rice and beans, which together have all the essential amino acids, form a complete protein. This is an example of a way vegetarians can make sure they get complete proteins from their diet; however, according to research, it's not necessary to get complete proteins for every meal. Having some amino acids during breakfast and the others during lunch will have the same effect as consuming them together, during the same meal. Your body has the ability to combine complementary proteins as long as their eaten on the same day.

The following is a broad overview of the protein content in different food groups:

1 cup dairy or soy milk 6-8 g
3 oz. lean beef, fish, or poultry 21 g
1/2 cup beans 7 g
1 slice of bread 3 g
1/2 cup cooked vegetables 2 g

Dietary protein adds up rather quickly, and, as mentioned earlier, without too much effort. In the US, it is rare to find protein deficiencies among the general population. Ours is more a problem of excess than deficiency.

If you have special dietary needs and/or would like some nutrition counseling to help you eat enough protein from your diet, talking with a nutritionist can be a big help. Columbia students on the Morningside campus can use Open Communicator or call 212-854-7426 to make an appointment. Students on the CUMC campus can contact Medical Services at 212-305-3400.

Alice

February 4, 2014

550964
Not hard to get enough protein, even if Vegan, if you know how to eat. I find not good, those who eat all raw veggies and fruits, you need some grains and definitely proteins. But many seeds, root...
Not hard to get enough protein, even if Vegan, if you know how to eat. I find not good, those who eat all raw veggies and fruits, you need some grains and definitely proteins. But many seeds, root crops and nuts, have far more protein then meat or animal products like dairy and eggs. I don't eat any animal products, plus no wheat/gluten grains, and nightshade plants, they cause inflammation in my body, I am intolerant of them; some due I due to auto immune problems, and somewhat I think because of my Native American heritage. As was said already, you don't have to consume a full amino acid spectrum at each meal, just accomplish it during the day. You actually get more complete digestion of things, if you have less combinations of of food groups. Proteins best digested if eaten alone or only with other proteins, veggies ok, if not starchy or too starchy. Most fruits don't digest well with starches, but acid fruits help digest proteins. I find that some fruits like Melons, are best eaten by themselves, nothing else added; eat fresh fruits that way. I sometimes eat things like dates and nuts together, that seems ok.

March 11, 2013

525286
Great article, Alice. I'm currently studying the effects of a body building diet on a "minimal" amount of protein, vs the 1.5-2.0 grams p/ body weight that is so popular these days. I'm curious...
Great article, Alice. I'm currently studying the effects of a body building diet on a "minimal" amount of protein, vs the 1.5-2.0 grams p/ body weight that is so popular these days. I'm curious about the possible positive effects of lessening the protein load, if only for a short time. As you stated, our problem is that of protein excess. Thanks for a great advice.

Kombucha — Diet supplement?

Dear Herbal,

Kombucha is a type of fermented tea, popular 5000 years ago in China and Russia because it was believed to have healing and restorative properties, and popular for the same reasons today, despite mixed evidence of the actual benefits. The beverage, which can taste like either sparkling cider or vinegar depending on how long it has been fermented, is now enjoyed by many people in the East and West. Its purported benefits range from immune system support, to digestive stimulant, to weight loss supplement, to cancer-preventing food — with varying amounts of scientific evidence behind each. But before you sit down to your tea party and drink to good health, it's wise to be aware of the potential health risks involved in consuming kombucha, especially if it has been prepared incorrectly.

Kombucha is typically prepared by combining sugar-sweetened black or green tea with a fungus (called a kombucha mother or scobie) at room temperature for 10 to 14 days. The scobie is a symbiotic colony of yeasts and bacteria bound together by a thin membrane, which can be bought commercially. First, the tea leaves are infused into boiled water at about 165 degrees Fahrenheit and sugar is added. After about ten minutes, the tea leaves are removed, and the fresh-fermented scobie is added. The mixture is then left to ferment for seven to ten days, covered by a cloth.

The tea varieties, amount of sugar used, and varying fermentation time lengths can affect its chemical composition and hence its health effects. Research (mostly with animal subjects) suggests that specific components of kombucha may provide health benefits, which include:

  • Organic acids (particularly acetic acid), large proteins, and catechins (a type of phenol) that may promote antimicrobial activity
  • Tea polyphenols, ascorbic acid (a form of vitamin C), and DSL (a derivative of glucaric acid) that may lead to antioxidant activity, may have protective effects on the liver, and may even have anticancer effects

Despite the increasing body of evidence, some researchers are still not convinced of these effects; the benefits remain hypotheses due to mixed results across studies. Other benefits attributed to kombucha tea have included relief of arthritis, hair re-growth, increased sex drive, eyesight improvement, and even use as an underarm deodorant or soothing foot soak, but there is not sufficient evidence to validate or refute most of these claims.

Though the brew can be purchased commercially, the low pH of the mixture and the presence of antimicrobial agents in the kombucha mother prevent the survival of most potentially contaminating organisms, making this beverage a popular drink to brew at home. It’s crucial to note that if it’s prepared incorrectly, it can be dangerous. Some warning signs to look out for include:

  • If fermentation continues longer than ten days, the acidity level can become dangerously high.
  • If the acidity level is below 4.2, it is also considered dangerous to consume. If the pH does not rise above 4.2 after a week of fermentation, the batch should be thrown away.
  • If there is any sign of mold growing, the batch should not be consumed.

Even when prepared correctly, the recommended maximum daily amount is four ounces (about half a cup). It’s also good to keep in mind that sometimes the fermentation process creates some alcohol in the kombucha.

Scientists disagree as to the ultimate safety of this fermented tea, as a number of documented cases of severe kombucha toxicity have been linked to both overconsumption and consuming an improperly prepared batch. Symptoms of toxicity can include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, jaundice, neck pain, and allergic reactions. Women who are pregnant or nursing are advised to not drink fermented tea. There have also been noted health risks associated with drinking kombucha for those who are HIV positive. For folks without pre-existing health concerns, consuming no more than the recommended amount a day of the bubblin’ brew is likely safe and may even provide some of the hypothesized health benefits above. Enjoy!

Alice

Chocolate — good or bad?

Dear Reader,

Dinner's in a few hours. Lunch seems like it was ages ago. You still have to work on a paper, drive your little brother to soccer, and do the dishes. The deliciousness of chocolate and the sweet sugar/caffeine fix it offers may seem to be the only thing to get you through, so you reach for a bar… is that so bad? New research says no, and yes, depending largely on which type of chocolate you choose and how much of it you eat. Cacao, the bean from which chocolate is made, is not itself unhealthy. In fact, it offers many potential health benefits like lowering blood pressure, increasing sensitivity to insulin, improving coronary vasodilatation (widening of blood vessels) as well as other cardiovascular benefits, and acting as an anti-oxidizing agent. But not all chocolates are created equal.

The good guys in chocolate are flavonoids, health-promoting compounds found in plant-based foods (fruits, veggies, nuts, legumes) that belong to a larger class of compounds called polyphenols. In plants, flavonoids work to repair damage and protect from environmental toxins. When we consume plant-based foods rich in flavonoids, it appears that they can act the same ways in our bodies, offering antioxidant protection from free radicals, and protection from plaque formation on our arterial walls.

Dark chocolate is the most flavonoid-rich variety of chocolate, and therefore the most likely to offer health benefits. However, as chocolate is processed flavonoids are lost, and most commercial chocolates are highly processed. Flavonoids also tend to have a bitter flavor, so many commercial chocolates intentionally process them out. In addition, many chocolate products are made with milk, which can interfere with the antioxidant functioning of flavinols, negating most of the potential health benefits. Finally, many chocolate products are laden with caramel, nuts, marshmallow, and other high-fat, high-calorie add-ins that decrease the amount of flavinols in every bite and make a small chocolate snack a hefty caloric load. Even the best, most flavonoid-rich dark chocolate is replete with fat, sugar, and calories (one ounce of any kind of chocolate has about 140 to 150 calories and 9 to 10 grams of fat), so if you're upping the amount of chocolate you eat to gain health benefits, keep in mind that you may want to trim calories in other areas.

One final consideration: there is currently no research that definitively suggests the amount of chocolate that should be eaten to achieve health benefits. You could also get the polyphenol-related health benefits by eating other flavonoid-rich foods like apples, red wine, tea, cranberries, and onions. That said, for most people, enjoying a small piece of dark chocolate once in a while is probably not going to be harmful, and is more favorable than reaching for the common trick-or-treat variety candy bar.

Over time chocolate has gotten a mixed reputation. It used to be seen as a fattening, pimple-producing crutch for the premenstrual. But chocolate does not cause acne, raise blood cholesterol, cause addiction, nor is it fattening if eaten in moderation. More recently, the pendulum has swung in favor of chocolate, which has come to be regarded as a kind of superfood. While it can offer some wonderful benefits, it may not be the antioxidant source of choice for everyone. Chocolate, as well as red wines and certain cheeses, contains phenylethylamine (PEA), a substance that can dilate blood vessels in the brain. People sensitive to PEA might find that eating chocolate can trigger headaches, even migraines. And for those prone to heartburn, chocolate can cause an episode, as would any other high-fat food.

So is chocolate bad for you? Each person should answer this question for themselves taking into consideration which kind of chocolate is within reach and their own health needs. For most healthy and fit individuals, chocolate is a pleasurable and reasonably healthy way to get some flavonoids into the system. For those prone to migraines or who have to watch their fat intake, they might want to stick with the cranberries and onions.

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

What's the difference between vitamins and minerals?

Dear Reader,

There is a lot of conflicting information about the pros and cons of supplements, so thanks for asking an important question. A healthy and nutritious diet involves six classes of nutrients:

  • carbohydrates
  • fats
  • proteins
  • vitamins
  • minerals
  • water

Carbohydrate, fat, and protein are considered macronutrients [because our bodies require them in large quantities (grams/day)] and they yield energy. Vitamins and minerals are considered micronutrients [because our bodies need them in smaller amounts (milligrams or micrograms/day)] and instead of yielding energy, they help our bodies carry out necessary and important physiological processes. About 40 of these nutrients are essential for life because our bodies cannot synthesize enough to meet physiological needs (so our diet provides us with the bulk of these essential nutrients).

Vitamins are either water-soluble (water is required for absorption and are excreted in urine) or fat-soluble (requires fat for absorption and are stored in fat tissue). There are 9 different water-soluble vitamins: vitamin C and the eight B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamins B6 and B12, folate, biotin, and pantothenic acid); and, 4 different fat-soluble vitamins: vitamins A, D, E, and K. Each of these vitamins have unique roles and functions in our bodies. For example, vitamin A promotes eyesight and helps us see in the dark, and vitamin K helps blood to clot.

Minerals are categorized as major or macro- (calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, chloride, magnesium, and sulfur), and trace or micro- (iron, iodine, zinc, chromium, selenium, fluoride, molybdenum, copper, and manganese) minerals, the former needed in quantities of 100mg/day or more, and the latter required in much smaller, or "trace," amounts. These 16 essential minerals also play vital roles in the body, such as calcium in osteoporosis prevention and iron in (iron-deficiency) anemia prevention; and, they can be found in the body dissolved in body fluids as ions and/or are part of important compounds, such as calcium and phosphorus in hydroxyapatite found in bones and teeth. Other minerals, such as lead, are contaminant minerals and not nutrients because they can cause harm by disrupting normal bodily functions and processes, i.e. lead poisoning.

Vitamins ("vita" = life and "amine" = containing nitrogen) are organic (containing carbon, which is an element found in all living things) compounds (containing atoms of one or more different elements). Minerals are pure inorganic elements (containing atoms of the same element), meaning they are much simpler in chemical form than vitamins. All vitamins are essential or required by our bodies, whereas only some minerals are essential nutrients. Vitamins are vulnerable to heat, light, and chemical agents, so cooking, food preparation, processing, and storage must be appropriate to preserve vitamins in food. Minerals, on the other hand, are more stable to food preparation, but mineral loss can occur when they are bound to other substances in foods (such as oxalates found in spinach and tea, and phytates found in legumes and grains), making them unavailable for the body to utilize.

There is not a lot of research to state unequivocally if taking extra vitamins or minerals is harmful or helpful for the body. Our bodies do have a natural maximum capacity for different types of vitamins and minerals, so taking a lot of supplements may result in nausea or other side effects as your system works to get rid of the excess. While some vitamins and minerals are water soluble and can be excreted through urine if they are in excess, others are absorbed in fat and can accumulate over time. Some supplements can also interact with prescribed medications, so you may want to include them when asked about any medications during medical exams. You may also want to speak to your health care provider before adding any new supplements to your diet.  

Health care professionals do agree that the best source of both macro and micro nutrients is from a well-balanced diet. Try visiting ChooseMyPlate.gov for information on the health benefits, nutrients, and vitamins available in different foods. Depending on the person, current levels of vitamins and minerals may be higher or lower than necessary and may warrant a supplement or dietary changes. To understand what vitamins and minerals are most appropriate for you, you may want to consult with your health care provider or a registered dietician. If you’re a Columbia student, you can make an appointment by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC) to speak with either a health care provider or dietitian. You might also want to check out the get balanced! Guide for Healthier Eating. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) websites have additional information about dietary supplements in general.

Here’s to finding the balance that’s right for you!

Alice

November 18, 2014

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EXCELLENT! Consistently precise.
EXCELLENT! Consistently precise.
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