Optimal Nutrition

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Ice cream for breakfast?

Dear icecreamlover,

Regardless of the time of day you eat it, ice cream wouldn't make it on any top ten healthy foods list. However, if your body is able to deal with the high doses of sugar and fat first thing in the morning, which many adults cannot, there might not be reason to toss out the ice cream scoop just yet.

The most important thing is to eat something within the first few hours after waking up in order to get your metabolism going and refuel your body after not eating for several hours. The fat in ice cream may help you stay full longer, and it contains a lot of calcium, which your body needs for healthy bones and other important functions.

Sound too good to be true? It might be… if you did it every day. Like many other things in life, too much of a good thing may not always be the best for you. Ice cream is high in calories and saturated fats, which is why it's a supplement to, rather than a basic staple, of a healthy diet.

If you're choosing ice cream first thing in the morning because you love that it's sweet, creamy, and cold, you may want to try some low-fat yogurt instead. It's like ice cream but not as high in fat, calories, or sugar. All the while, it still provides you with ample amounts of calcium. If you don't mind warming up, you could also try oatmeal sweetened with a touch of brown sugar, cinnamon, or honey and stir in some chopped up fruit for more flavor. Making the oatmeal with milk instead of water can help you feel full longer and provide essential vitamins and minerals, including calcium. If it's just your sweet tooth you're looking to satisfy, you could try switching to granola with fruit and yogurt, toast with jam or fruit spreads, or lightly sweetened cereal with milk.

Combining these foods with the occasional bowl of ice cream in the morning will help to ensure that you're eating a healthy and balanced diet overall. Of course, it's also important to eat well throughout the day, which means including plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products in other meals. For more tips on healthy eating, check out the related Q&As below.

Bon appétit!


Chocolate's antioxidant content?

Dear Reader,

Chocoholics of the world rejoice; there's another reason to be cuckoo for cocoa. In addition to satisfying your sweet tooth, chocolate also contains flavonoids — a type of antioxidant with several health benefits.

However, all chocolate is not created equal. To get the most antioxidant bang for your bite, choose plain, dark chocolate. Most chocolate found in products like candy bars and hot cocoa mix has been processed to reduce the amount flavonoids, which give chocolate its bitter, nutty taste. Many chocolates also have added milk and sugar, which increases the amount of fat and calories per serving. Another downside, milk interferes with the body's ability to absorb flavonoids, working against chocolate's health benefits.

In it's purest form, dark chocolate is a heart-healthy alternative to refined confections. Feel free to indulge once in a while, but remember there are other sweet sources of antioxidants like fruit. For more information about the power of antioxidants, check out Antioxidants in the Go Ask Alice! Archives. Here's to having your chocolate, and staying healthy too!


Is wine a fruit serving?

Dear Five a day,

Eating enough fruits and veggies, and the other food groups while you're at it, can help to keep you healthy, strong, and energetic. Wouldn't it be great if chocolate counted as our daily allowance of legumes, and beer as grains? While these decadent pleasures actually do contain plenty of nutrients, and while wine has benefits in common with its younger incarnation, the grape, it's not quite the same thing.

Both grape juice and red wine contain resveratrol, a plant-based compound, which may reduce the risk of heart disease. Both also contain antioxidants called flavonoids, which may reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) otherwise known as "bad" cholesterol, and increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the "good" cholesterol. Additionally, studies suggest that drinking either grape juice or red wine can reduce the risk of blood clots, protect blood vessels, prevent atherosclerosis (hardening of arteries), and help to maintain healthy blood pressure. There is less evidence that the potential benefits of wine apply to drinking white or rosé wines.

While this is starting to sound like a big thumbs up for red wine, fruit has nutrients, like loads of fiber, live enzymes, and vitamins and minerals that just aren't present in wine. For that matter, many of them aren't present in juice either — you'd have to eat the fruit itself to get all of them. In addition to not containing all the nutritional value of fruit, wine also contains alcohol, which can pose a stress to the liver, pancreas, and nerve cells over time. Heavy drinkers are also at risk for malnutrition, as alcohol may serve as a caloric substitute for more nutritious foods (like fruit).

For people in good health, regular and moderate wine drinking is usually fine and in fact it may offer some health benefits. But potential health benefits should not necessarily be a reason to start drinking if you don't already. Studies show that occasional or binge drinkers have a higher mortality rates than those who drink moderately on a regular basis. There are also some people who would do best to stay away from wine altogether. Those who suffer from alcoholism, liver disease, pancreatitis, uncontrolled hypertension, depression, or heart disease may worsen their conditions by drinking alcohol.

The somber news for the cabernet-lovers is that while wine can be good for you if you are already healthy and drink moderately and regularly, the best way to fulfill your five-a-day fruit requirement is still the good old-fashioned way of, well, eating fruit.

If you'd like more nutrition advice on how to tailor your diet, you can make an appointment with a nutritionist. Columbia students can meet with a nutritionist at Medical Services (Morningside campus) or the Student Health Service (CUMC campus) for a consultation. Also, you may want to check out the Get Balanced! Guide to Healthier Eating which provides more information regarding food choices available to members of the Columbia Unviersity community.

Bon Appetit!


How to stop being a vegetarian/start eating meat?

Dear J,

Rejoining the ranks of the omnivorous need not mean you make major shifts in your current vegetarian diet, assuming that your current diet is reasonably well-balanced and contains plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Most recommendations about transitioning from a vegetarian diet to one that includes meat suggest slowly adding in easy-to-digest, lean meats, while continuing to eat vegetarian staples.

Fish is an excellent first step. Fish, especially salmon, trout, herring, and sardines (in general, cold-water fish with small bones) is a great source of protein as well as omega-3 fatty acids, and fish isn't as hard for the body to break down and digest as more dense, fattier meats. Choosing the right fish has become trickier as concerns about mercury levels (a toxin), overfishing of wild stocks, and aqua-farming practices increase. Check out the Monterrey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program to learn more about sustainable and healthy choices for getting your fish fix.

Lean meats, such as poultry (white meat and skinless are the leanest poultry choices), lean cuts of beef and pork, and ground meats with the least percentage of fat, are also good sources of protein and iron. These should be at least 90 percent lean. Again, when adding poultry and meats back into your diet, you may want to consider issues of sustainability when buying. Some issues to consider include whether the animals were free-range, raised without hormones or antibiotics, or grass-fed.

Like any meat-eater, you may want to use caution when considering processed meats like ham, sausage, hot dogs, and packaged lunch meats, as they're often loaded with preservatives and sodium. However, if you find a trustworthy brand or deli, these are a convenient and easy way to incorporate meat into your diet once your body has had a while to get used to the leaner meats. Turkey, roast beef, and low-fat varieties of luncheon meats tend to have less fat than bologna or salami. With the addition of meat to your diet comes increased cholesterol and saturated fat. Fatty or red meats, egg yolks, and full-fat dairy are high in both cholesterol and saturated fat. Everyone, not just those transitioning from vegetarianism, should be mindful of how much cholesterol and saturated fat they're consuming.

Finally, just because you are adding meat to your diet, remember that your vegetarian favorites like grains, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables are still an important part of your eating plan. These are all important sources of vitamins, minerals, fibers, proteins, and enzymes. You mentioned that you were a lacto-ovo vegetarian, which means you have been eating eggs and dairy. These animal products are great sources of protein and other nutrients and can be included in your diet along with everything else.

The USDA considers fish, meat, legumes, and beans to be in the same food group. The recommended daily amount one should eat from this group depends on age, sex, and level of physical activity; however, typically a serving from the protein group is 3 to 4 ounces. As you can see, meat doesn't need to be eaten in huge portions to meet your protein requirements and, you don't need to eat it every day. Making the change to an omnivorous diet slowly, with continued use of the vegetarian foods you were accustomed to eating, can help avoid shocking your system with a sudden onslaught of new foods.

Columbia students who would like more nutrition guidance can make an appointment with a Registered Dietician by calling Medical Services (Morningside campus) or the Student Health Center (CUMC campus). Enjoy the vast array of new options you have in meal planning and restaurant choices, and don't forget to eat your vegetables, even in the midst of meat-eating bliss!


Benefits of vitamin B-6

Dear Reader,

Also referred to as pyridoxine, pyridoxamine, and pyridoxal, vitamin B-6 is involved in the metabolism of amino acids, glucose, and lipids in the liver. Vitamin B-6 is also crucial in the synthesis of neurotransmitters, hemoglobin, and histamine, as well as proper gene expression. Because vitamin B-6 plays a significant role in more than 100 metabolic reactions, consuming enough of it on a daily basis is important. However, research regarding vitamin B-6 supplements is generally inconclusive, so those deficient in the vitamin should consider making dietary adjustments rather than taking supplements.

The amount of vitamin B-6 to be consumed on a daily basis depends upon an individual’s age and gender. The Food and Drug Administration has established the following Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) of vitamin B-6:

  • 0.5 milligrams per day for children 1-3 years
  • 0.6 mg/day for children 4-8 years
  • 1 mg/day for children 9-13 years
  • 1.2 mg/day for females 14-18 years; 1.3 mg/day for males 14-18 years
  • 1.3 milligrams/day for adults 19-50 years
  • 1.5 mg/day for females over 50 years; 1.7 mg/day for men over 50 years

Although it is relatively rare, vitamin B-6 deficiency can have harmful effects. Dialysis, arthritis, liver disease, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s Disease, and HIV patients are at higher risk for vitamin B-6 deficiency, as well as individuals coping with alcoholism and those who take certain medications like penicillamine and hydrocortisone. It has also been found that oral contraceptives and other estrogens can interfere with vitamin B-6 metabolism, resulting in deficiency. Those deficient in the vitamin might consider changing their diets in order to ensure that they are consuming enough of the nutrient from food.

There are lots of great sources of vitamin B-6 in a wide range of delicious foods. Vitamin B-6 is found in meat, poultry, fish, eggs, whole grains, legumes (bean and peas), potatoes, yeast, bananas, corn, cabbage, yams, prunes, watermelon, and avocado. One’s daily quota of vitamin B-6 can be easily consumed through food, including these vitamin B-6 rich food sources:

Banana, medium size

0.6 mg

Chicken breast, 3 oz., roasted

0.5 mg

Pork loin, 3 oz., roasted

0.4 mg

Baked potato with skin, 3 oz.

0.35 mg

Watermelon, 1 cup

0.23 mg

Black beans, boiled, 1 cup

0.12 mg

For more information about nutrition, check out the Optimal Nutrition section of the Go Ask Alice! archives. If you’re a Columbia student on the Morningside campus, you can make an appointment with a Registered Dietitian to discuss your intake of vitamin B-6.  If you are on the Medical Center campus, contact Medical Services to make an appointment with a Registered Dietitian. While you’re at it, take a look at Columbia’s Get Balanced Guide for Healthier Eating for more information and ideas.



Nutritional differences between soy- and cow's milk

Dear Udderly confused,

The major difference between soymilk and "regular" milk (predominantly cow's milk in the United States; goat and sheep's milk are other options) is that one is derived from a plant and the other from an animal. Although ethical, hypothetical, or debatable issues frequently arise when discussing this subject, this answer is going to deal strictly with the nutritional differences between these two kinds of milk.

What's most commonly referred to as simply “milk” is cow's milk, a product of the cow’s mammary gland. As with all other animal-based foods, it's a complete protein; that is, it supplies people with all the necessary amino acids to form proteins. Cow's milk contains 8 grams of protein and 12 grams of carbohydrates per 8-ounce cup. Cow's milk is a rich source of other nutrients as well. One cup provides adults with about 30 percent of their daily calcium needs and about 50 percent of their vitamin B12 and riboflavin requirements. Often, milk is fortified with vitamin D to facilitate the absorption of calcium. Vitamin A is usually added to milk as well. Depending on the selection, cow's milk can have a significant amount of fat. (See the chart at the end of the answer for a comparison of the fat content of some varieties of milk.)

Lactose, the primary carbohydrate in cow's milk, poses a digestive problem for some people. These folks are deficient in the lactase enzyme that's needed to break down this milk sugar, causing gas, bloating, and diarrhea after consuming some forms of dairy products. The solution is to purchase products with the lactose already broken down, to take the enzyme in the form of a pill or drops, or to find a substitute for these foods. Check out Lactose intolerance for more information.

Soymilk is not technically milk, but a beverage made from soybeans. It is the liquid that remains after soybeans are soaked, finely ground, and then strained. Since it doesn't contain any lactose, soymilk is suitable for lactose intolerant folks. It's also a popular cow's milk substitute for vegans and vegetarians since it's based on a plant source (others include rice, oat, almond, coconut, and potato milk).

One cup of unfortified soymilk contains almost 7 grams of protein, 4 grams of carbohydrate, 4½ grams of fat, and no cholesterol. Although soymilk supplies some B vitamins, it's not a good source of B12, nor does it provide a significant amount of calcium. Since many people substitute soy beverages for cow's milk, manufacturers offer fortified versions. These varieties may include calcium and vitamins E, B12, and D, among other nutrients. If you do choose to use soymilk instead of cow’s milk, read labels carefully to be sure you're getting enough of these important nutrients or consider getting them from alternative food sources.

Soymilk may help some people reduce their risk for heart disease. Soy naturally contains isoflavones, plant chemicals that help lower LDL ("bad" cholesterol) if taken as part of a "heart healthy" eating plan. The recommendation is to take in about 25 grams of soy protein per day. One cup of soymilk has about 7 - 10 grams of protein, depending on the brand. Previously, researchers thought soy consumption was correlated with increased rates of breast cancer, but recent research suggests that soymilk consumption may actually reduce breast cancer rates for some populations, including post-menopausal women and Asian populations. Soy’s unique effect on Asian women is thought to be the result of larger amounts of dietary soy consumed over longer periods of time than other in women.

All in all, what you choose to drink is really a matter of personal preference and your health objectives. You may find this chart helpful in comparing the nutritional qualities between cow's milk and soymilk [per 1 cup (8 oz.) serving]:

Product Calories Fat(g) %Fat Calcium(mg)* Vit. B12(mcg)*
Cow's Milk:
Whole milk 150 8 48 290 .87
Reduced fat (2%) 120 5 38 297 .89
Low fat (1%) 100 3 27 300 .90
Skim 85 .4 4 302 .93
Unfortified 79 4.5 51 10 0
Fortified** 130 3.5 30 585 1.2

*RDA (men and women) for: Calcium: 1,000 - 1,300 milligrams/day (depending upon age) Vitamin B12: 2.0 micrograms/day

**Silk Vanilla

May you always have a tall glass of (soy or cow's) milk with your cookies!


January 28, 2013

Some people find that taking lactase pills while eating their meal helps to break down the lactose, and decrease or eradicate symptoms.
Some people find that taking lactase pills while eating their meal helps to break down the lactose, and decrease or eradicate symptoms.

January 17, 2013

Very well explained. I learned a lot.
Very well explained. I learned a lot.

March 26, 2012

Soy foods are not the only plant based food that contain complete proteins. Quinoa is a grain and an example of a complete protein. Amaranth and hempseed are other examples.
Soy foods are not the only plant based food that contain complete proteins. Quinoa is a grain and an example of a complete protein. Amaranth and hempseed are other examples.

Fish-less omega-3 fatty acids

Dear Reader,

Yes, there certainly are! Good sources include:

  • Canola and olive oils.
  • Walnuts.
  • Ground flaxseed.
  • Tofu.
  • Leafy green veggies.

There are three main types of omega-3s. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are mainly found in fish, whereas alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found elsewhere. Good sources of ALA include vegetable oils (such as soybean or canola), nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds and flaxseed oil, and leafy vegetables (like kale, spinach, and Brussels sprouts). You could try adding some walnuts and flaxseed into your oatmeal, yogurt, or smoothie, and use vegetable oil for cooking or in a salad dressing to top off a leafy veggie. Try using canola oil to make a vegetable stir fry with tofu. Tahini, which is made with sesame seeds, is a great source of omega-3s and can be used to make sauces and dips, such as hummus. For more information about nutrition, check out the Get Balanced Guide to Healthier Eating as well as the Alice! Health Promotion Nutrition Initiatives.

Omega-3s fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that your body needs for numerous body functions, such as controlling blood clotting and normal brain function. Omega-3s have been shown to help prevent heart disease and possibly stroke, may help control lupus, eczema, and rheumatoid arthritis due to anti-inflammatory properties, and could be protective against certain types of cancer and other conditions.

There is some debate on whether sources of ALA carry the same benefits as fish sources of EPA and DHA. The body converts ALA into EPA and DHA, but not everyone’s body does this well. If you’re not averse to making an exception to your vegetarianism for fish oil, you can consider taking a fish oil supplement and might want to speak with your health provider or a nutritionist before doing so. For questions about your specific individual nutritional needs, Columbia students can make an appointment with Medical Services on the Morningside Campus or Student Health at the Medical Center to speak with a healthcare provider or nutritionist.

Happy eating!


Weight loss products containing hydroxy citric acid — Safe?

Dear Skeptical,

These claims are questionable at best. Here's the scoop: HCA — short for hydroxy citric acid — is an ingredient found in many weight loss supplements. It's derived primarily from the Garcinia cambogia plant. Citric acid is a substance involved in the metabolism of carbohydrates. HCA (a modified form of citric acid) is believed by some to inhibit the enzyme that allows carbohydrates to be stored as fat. It is suggested that, in the presence of HCA, excess carbohydrates would be expended instead of being stored as fat. A decrease in appetite is purported to be a side effect of this process, which further promotes weight loss. This certainly sounds good in theory. But... in 2009, a popular brand of dietary supplements for weight loss containing HCA as the main active ingredient was recalled after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a safety warning. The FDA received 23 reports of liver problems among those who took them, as well as other problems such as seizures and cardiovascular problems, and one death occurred. Since then the makers of the brand have stopped using HCA in their formulas, but HCA remains the active ingredient in several weight loss supplements that are currently available.

Studies on the effectiveness of HCA in animals and humans indicate mixed results. A study using rats found that high daily doses of HCA led to testicular atrophy and other toxicities, while other studies using smaller doses of HCA have found no adverse effects in lab animals. In human trials, there are studies that have found HCA as an effective weight loss supplement, while other studies have found that HCA does not prevent fat storage or promote weight loss.

Although some web sites claim HCA is safe, the truth is, we really don't know. Considering the 2009 recall of products containing HCA and the lack of information on long-term effects, is HCA worth the possible risks associated with it?

You may want to consider speaking with a health care provider to develop an effective weight loss plan. If you are a Columbia student on the Morningside campus, you can make an appointment with a health care provider and/or nutritionist by calling 212-854-2284 or logging on to Open Communicator. If you are on the Medical Center campus, you can do the same by calling 212-305-3400 or logging on to the Student Health Service web portal. You can also check out the Get Balanced! and CU Move initiatives, to help you reach your nutrition and physical activity goals.


Dolomite as a nutritional supplement?

Dear Just wondering,

Dolomite, or calcium magnesium carbonate, is a common mineral extract that occurs as crystals in large rock beds of limestone. Calcium carbonate is a cheap calcium supplement with a high percentage of calcium by weight, but the body has difficulty in breaking it down for use. Though dolomite in powdered form is soluble in weak acids, stomach acid doesn’t do the best job of dissolving it, especially in people with decreased stomach acid secretions (e.g., sick and elderly people). Other forms of calcium like calcium citrate are easier for the body to absorb.

In addition to being a less effective source of calcium, dolomite may be hazardous to your health. Dolomite deposits also contain other elements such as barium, lead, and iron and manganese carbonates as impurities. In the early 1980s, concern arose regarding heavy-metal contamination of calcium supplements when a study found high concentrations of lead in dolomite supplements. Since it may contain the toxic elements mercury and lead, dolomite is not a recommended source for calcium and magnesium — other forms of these minerals are available that would be safer to take.

See Iron, calcium, and constipation, oh my! for more info about calcium supplements. If you have questions about your individual nutritional needs or want more advice on nutritional supplements, talk with a health care provider or nutritionist. Students at Columbia on the Morningside campus can make an appointment with a nutritionist by calling 212-854-2284 or logging on to Open Communicator. If you are on the Medical Center campus, you can reach out to the Center for Student Wellness and the Student Health Service.


Sources of pectin (soluble fiber)?

Dear Reader,

You can add citrus fruits such as lemons, oranges, and grapefruits to your list of pectin-rich foods. Strawberries and other fruits and vegetables also contain some pectin, but not as much as apples and fruits in the citrus family. Pectin is also added to certain foods, such as jams/jellies, because it acts as a thickening agent since it becomes gel-like when dissolved in water.

Pectin is a water-soluble dietary fiber. It can be found in most plants. Pectin slows the passage of food through the intestine and helps to lower blood cholesterol levels. In the intestine, it's believed that pectin fibers bind to bile (produced by the liver from cholesterol), which is then excreted from the body. Evidence supports the use of pectin for treating diarrhea, while studies are also being conducted to determine pectin’s potential benefits for preventing and treating certain types of cancer.  

For additional information on fiber, check out the Related Q&As below.

It might be a good idea to seek further guidance from a nutritionist. If you are a Columbia student on the Morningside campus, you can make an appointment with a nutritionist by calling 212-854-2284 or logging on to Open Communicator. If you are on the Medical Center campus, you can reach out to the Center for Student Wellness or Student Health.

Happy hunting!


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