Nutrition & Physical Activity

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Yoga on the cheap?

Dear Reader,

Congratulations on finding an exercise program that you truly enjoy and want to stick with. Good news — your yoga practice doesn’t have to suffer now that your months’ worth of yoga classes has run out! Taking yoga classes can be expensive and time consuming, but there are numerous ways to work around the cost.People practicing yoga in Times Square. Image via Andrew Dallos on Flickr.

Free yoga classes are often available through community centers, the YMCA, public parks (New Yorkers should see Shape Up NYC), and university clubs and student organizations. Some private yoga studios offer free classes during off-peak hours with teachers-in-training. Other studios, such as New York City’s Yoga to the People, are donation-based and operate under the principle that yoga should be accessible to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. Most studios also offer class punch cards, purchased in bulk (usually between 10 to 20 classes), that are offered at a discounted rate. Finally, don’t hesitate to ask your local yoga studio if you may participate in karma yoga, a practice in which yogis trade assistance around the studio (such as front desk work, cleaning, or publicity) for free yoga classes.

The benefits of practicing at home are numerous — the fact that it’s free is just one of them! Doing yoga at home may help release you from self-consciousness, mitigate the stress of daily life, permit you extra time to focus on the poses you prefer or want to work on, allow you to focus your attention inward, and help you establish awareness of the relationship between the mind, body, and breath.

Indeed, there are guidelines for practicing yoga at home:

  • Block out time for your at-home yoga practice in your schedule just as you would an in-person yoga class. You might try 30 minute sessions three to four days a week, for example.
  • Set a timer at the beginning of your practice — some yogis prefer long sessions, but research shows that consistency, not the duration of the practice, helps build routine.
  • Consider purchasing a yoga mat, block, and strap for home use. This equipment does involve an initial investment, but it will pay off the more you practice at home.
  • If you’re not sure where to start, consider following a CD or video (available online and at most public libraries). As you grow more accustomed to at-home practice, you’ll naturally become your own teacher.

Other types of exercise, such as Pilates, dance, barre, and Tai Chi, function similarly to yoga in that they focus on stretching, strengthening, and mindfulness. Like yoga, you may that they require some guidance, especially when first starting, but that you can eventually move to an at-home practice.

Engaging in a combination of full cost, low-cost, free, and at-home yoga practice methods may be the best way to address your various needs. If you’re a Columbia student, check out the various low-cost exercise classes offered at the Dodge Fitness Center for more ideas and inspiration. While you’re at it, take a look at the CU Move program to discover other ways to stay physically active on campus, and if you’re interested in addressing stress outside of your yoga practice, look into the Stressbusters program or, if you’re on the Medical Center campus, the Center for Student Wellness.



Best protein toppings for my salad?

Dear Pondering Protein,

Everyone knows that the best part about hitting the salad bar is having free reign over all the toppings! As you know, when it comes to protein toppings for your salads, there’s a long list of options; but with so many options to choose from, it can be difficult to decide which ones are the healthiest. Ultimately, the “best” protein to add to your salad is the one that will satisfy your appetite and contribute to a balanced diet. So, while there’s no definitive answer as to which protein is the smartest choice, let’s discuss some things to consider before you dig into that salad.  

You are certainly correct that turkey is leaner than chicken. In fact, turkey has about two-thirds fewer calories per ounce! Turkey also contains less saturated fat, which is good for keeping your cholesterol down. While both chicken and turkey are excellent sources of protein, chicken contains almost double the amount of protein per ounce. Chicken also contains less sodium, which means it can help stabilize your blood pressure. So it really depends on what you’re looking for, especially when you take into account the other foods you’re eating throughout the day. It’s all about balance.

There are also trade-offs to consider with the other sources of proteins you mentioned. Tuna has less calories and fat than chicken, but it also has less protein. And, as you mentioned, tuna, depending on where it's from and whether it's fresh or from a can, can also contain mercury, so you will need to keep that in mind. Eggs contain less saturated fat, but are high in cholesterol. With a family history of high cholesterol, you might want to try egg whites instead or do the whole egg, just not every single day. Don’t forget that popular salad toppings like beans, nuts, and some grains are also great sources of protein, in addition to offering plenty of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Just think about all the options: bulgur, quinoa, black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, walnuts, almonds, lentils, tofu, tempeh — the list goes on and on. You can also add some protein to your salads in the way of a dressing. What about using hummus, cottage cheese, or a yogurt-based dressing?

Each option offers different pros and cons, so try switching it up to add variety to your diet. This will also keep you excited and looking forward to your meals. If you want to investigate further, check out the USDA National Nutrient Database, which will give you information about the nutritional content of all your favorite foods. If you’re a Columbia student, you may also want to check out the Get Balanced Guide for Healthier Eating.

Whichever protein you choose, keep eating those leafy greens!


Feeling out of control from binge eating

Dear Reader,

The situation you describe is, unfortunately, all too common. That is to say, you are most definitely not alone in your feelings of not being in control and having the sense that food controls your life. Disordered eating, including binge eating disorder, is an issue that affects approximately 20 million women and 10 million men at some point during their lives. While there are a number of helpful online resources that can help, it’s highly recommended that you consult with a mental health professional about treatment. Fortunately, there are several reduced-cost treatment options you can take advantage of to help you on your road to recovery.

Let’s start with the online resources. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) has a wealth of resources for people who struggle with eating disorders. Beyond the information on their website, the NEDA runs an Information and Referral Helpline through which you can connect with staff members who can help you find treatment programs, support groups, and other information specific to your situation. NEDA also allows you to search for treatment services with sliding scale payment options and runs an interactive website just for teens.

Other affordable options for treatment are training institutes accredited by the American Psychoanalytic Association. These institutes allow people to receive psychotherapy from therapists in training. This treatment comes with a low price tag, sometimes only $10 to $15 per session, or is priced on a sliding scale basis. If you are a student at Columbia, contact Counseling and Psychological Services (Morningside) or Mental Health Services (CUMC) to make an appointment with a therapist.

As far as the issue of weight gain goes, working with a professional, in addition to figuring out the underlying reasons behind your overeating, will help you become more comfortable with your body. Restrictive dieting is usually not the best approach, as it can be an unhealthy and ineffective method of losing weight. Finally, eating healthfully, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep are great first steps and will positively complement other treatments such as therapy.

Hope this is helpful,


March 11, 2014

I don't know if this helps but I went through the same situation you're dealing with right now. It's usually hard at first but you'll get through it. Just eat something healthy, it can help you...
I don't know if this helps but I went through the same situation you're dealing with right now. It's usually hard at first but you'll get through it. Just eat something healthy, it can help you coping with food and when you feel like you can deal with it, don't eat too much, just eat only when you are hungry but stick with healthy food. Eat 3 meals per day, of course. I do cheat sometimes to satisfy my sweet needs so I don't go out of the control. I've lost about 25 pounds and I'm almost to my goal weight. I hope this makes you feel better? :) good luck!

Food aversions and nutrition

Dear Reader,

Being a picky eater is one thing, but having such strong aversions to certain foods that you gag violently is quite another. You’re right to associate symptoms such as ongoing lethargy with an unbalanced diet, and it sounds as though the difficulties you experience when trying to eat certain foods may be preventing you from meeting your most essential nutritional needs, including calories for energy. Good news — studies show that treatment for individuals who experience similar aversions to a wide variety of foods is highly effective, so keep at it!

Parents and babysitters will attest to the fact that picky eating is very common among children and adolescents. However, highly selective eating behaviors that begin in or last through adulthood are much less prevalent. Fortunately, treatment works; in a study with individuals whose diets were composed of six foods or less, phasing new foods into the diet with an emphasis on trying new foods, not eating large quantities of them, was effective. All study participants who accepted treatment were able to incrementally diversify their diet.

One of the principal consequences of eating an unbalanced diet low in nutrients is becoming underweight. Being underweight may cause a variety of short- and long-term health consequences, including fatigue (as you mention), weakened immune system, fragile bones and osteoporosis, anemia, and for women, interrupted periods and fertility issues. One of the best ways to prevent becoming underweight is to maintain a healthy diet. For a thorough summary of what a balanced diet looks like, check out the get balanced! Guide for Healthier Eating. Looking over the Guide will help you set goals and give you ideas about new foods you may be willing to try, such as delicious and nutritious fruits and vegetables. While maximized for students at Columbia, the key ideas in the guide can work for anyone and there are additional resources listed.

Seems like your current diet is high in carbohydrates, which may give you a short blast of energy but fade away rather quickly. Have you considered trying other foods of various textures that can help sustain your energy, such as fruit smoothies, nuts, yogurt, and berries? Alternatively, consider recombining ingredients in your existing diet — for example, you might try putting some cheese with tomato sauce on your pasta (almost the same as pizza). Experimentation within the range of your “safe foods” list may help you become more open to trying new foods. Once you’re ready to try new foods, take small tastes and evaluate what you like and don’t like about the food. You won’t necessarily like every new food you try, and that’s okay — it’s all about being open to experimentation.

In addition to simply disliking the texture of certain foods, there may be emotional factors that are preventing you from eating a well-balanced diet. In fact, clinical trials show that gagging, vomiting, and retching when exposed to a new food is often stress-related. Meditating, using breathing exercises, and experimenting with other relaxation techniques is highly effective. Seeking treatment from a professional may also be helpful. Columbia students are encouraged to contact Counseling and Psychological Services (Morningside Campus) or Mental Health Services (CUMC Campus) for support.

By slowly incorporating different foods into your diet, you will be on the right path to achieving a healthy weight. For additional input, consider reaching out to a dietician. Columbia students may schedule an appointment with a nutritionist through Medical Services (Morningside) or Student Health (CUMC) and should also check out Alice! Health Promotion Nutrition Initiatives. If you are not a student at Columbia, check with your campus health service or primary care provider for a referral.

The long term health benefits of working to overcome food aversions are well worth it; those who undergo treatment often report enjoying eating more, being less anxious about social situations involving eating, and increased self-confidence both at and beyond the table. Bon appétit!


Getting your fill of chlorophyll

Dear Reader,

Now that your coworker has planted the idea of chlorophyll’s health benefits in your mind, it’s time to dig up some facts. Chlorophyll has been used as a supplement since the 1960s, although chlorophyllin, a solution of sodium copper salts made from chlorophyll, is more commonly and inexpensively available (this is likely what your coworker’s “chlorophyll water” contained). Although it does have some approved uses and suspected health benefits, no long-term or large-scale studies with humans have been done to conclusively prove its supposed health-boosting properties. Furthermore, while most supplements are made with chlorophyllin, studies suggest that chlorophyll naturally available in vegetables such as spinach, parsley, and garden cress may be a more potent health agent.

Chlorophyllin-containing papain/urea ointments and sprays are sometimes prescribed to treat inflammation, speed healing, and reduce odor in wounds. Patients with colostomies and ileostomies can also take over-the-counter supplements containing chlorophyllin to reduce fecal odor, although some studies dispute the efficiency in this. While these are the only two approved uses for chlorophyllin, other potential positive health effects may include:

  • Reducing damage from carcinogens. Chlorophyll has been shown to bind to carcinogens, such as those in tobacco smoke and cooked meats, thus reducing their ability to enter the bloodstream and reach tissues.
  • Protecting against liver cancer. A study in China showed that a biomarker for aflatoxin, a carcinogen found in improperly stored grains which causes liver cancer, was present at lower levels in participants who simultaneously consumed the toxin and chlorophyll. Because the development of cancer takes many years, however, the long-term effectiveness of chlorophyll is unclear.
  • Treating trimethylaminuria (or fishy body odor). Chlorophyll reduces the amount of trimethylamines, and the associated fishy odor, excreted by people with this hereditary condition.
  • Combating colon cancer. Chlorophyllin has been shown to inhibit DNA synthesis and repair processes in colon cancer cells, giving it potential for use in cancer therapy.
  • Antioxidant properties.

It’s important to note that chlorophyllin also has potential side effects. Taken by mouth, it can cause urine or feces to appear greenish, black or yellow discoloration of the tongue, or occasional diarrhea. Used as an ointment or spray, it can cause a slight burning or itching sensation. Despite these mild side effects, no major toxicity in chlorophyll or chlorophyllin has been discovered in more than 50 years of popular use. Because of the lack of substantial research into chlorophyllins, however, those who are pregnant or breastfeeding may want to avoid this supplement or check in with a health provider before using it.

In summary, while the grass may be greener on the chlorophyll-watered side, science has yet to demonstrate its health benefits outside of a few very specific uses.

Hope this helps!


I don't get hungry. When should I eat?

Dear Reader,

Although you describe your appetite as being low, the fact that you love food makes your problem much easier to manage. It sounds like you’re losing track of your eating schedule now that you’re on your own, but there are lots of ways to work around this, especially because you like to cook and eat! Establishing healthy habits takes time and effort, but practice makes perfect, and soon enough you’ll get into the swing of a healthy routine. Planning your meals in advance, incorporating food into your daily activities, and sticking to a schedule will all help you get there.

A widely accepted general rule is to not eat if you’re not hungry. However, not eating all day isn’t a particularly healthy pattern— consuming too little food throughout the course of the day may result in shakiness, tiredness, and general mental cloudiness as well as nutritional deficiencies and immune system weakness. The first step: Incorporating a healthy breakfast into your morning routine can help get your metabolism going early in the day, which can help boost appetite later on, helping you remember to eat. Although you may not feel hungry first thing in the morning, consider energizing your body with complex carbohydrates — try whole-grain cereals with milk, whole-wheat toast with peanut butter, or yogurt with nuts and fruit. For more information on other specific meal and snack options, check out the get balanced! Guide for Healthier Eating.

Once you’ve had your breakfast, you have a solid nutritional base to build off of for the rest of the day. Try sticking to a schedule by eating at approximately the same times every day, whether you choose to eat three large or six small meals per day. Spread your meals apart, and set alarms if needed. When mealtime arrives, make sure to focus on your food, and avoid eating on the go or while watching a movie. Mindfulness will help you get into a routine.

In addition to eating at regular times, try keeping a food journal to analyze your habits. Write down what and when you eat, and after a few days, check your journal for patterns. You might find, for example, that you tend to reach for sweet snacks around 3:00 p.m. for an afternoon pick-me-up. Adjust your food choices and eating schedule according to your observations.

More ideas: Choose a library or workspace that has vending machines with healthy options so you’re reminded to eat, or make a commitment to have lunch with a colleague, classmate, or friend, which will help to incorporate healthy eating into your professional, academic, and social engagements. Always make sure to have healthy snacks on hand so you aren’t forced to make poor nutritional choices under pressure. Nutritious and yummy snack options include string cheese and dried fruit, almonds and low-fat cottage cheese or yogurt, or multigrain crackers with sliced turkey, hummus, or a hard-boiled egg. Prepare your healthy snacks and meals at night so you don’t forget to bring food along with you in the morning.

More generally, have you ever investigated the possible reasons for your lifelong low appetite? Lack or loss of appetite is sometimes indicative of various medical and psychological conditions, so it would be helpful to make an appointment with your healthcare provider to discuss your concerns. Individuals experiencing sudden loss of appetite should meet with a healthcare provider as soon as possible. Columbia students can use Open Communicator or call 212-854-7426 to make an appointment with a healthcare provider on the Morningside Campus or dial 212-305-3400 to book over the phone with Student Health on the Medical Center Campus. Columbia community members are also encouraged to take a look at the Alice! Health Promotion Nutrition Initiatives.

Most importantly, be patient with yourself. Don’t try to make too many changes at once; slowly incorporating these ideas into your day will help you get on track without getting burned out or frustrated. If you slip up every now and then, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, ask yourself what caused you to forget to under- or overeat, and consider ways to adapt and prevent this from happening again. Bon appétit!


Am I too nuts for nuts?

Dear Reader,

A few things to consider: First, do the nuts and nut butters you’re eating have added salt or sugars? If so, you may want to look at your overall sodium and sugar intake. You can have “toChoose my plate recommendations.o much of a good thing” when it comes to salt and sugar. Second, how’s the rest of your diet? Are you eating lots of vegetables (don’t forget your greens)? What about whole grains and fruits? While the calories in nuts can meet your body’s energy needs and provide protein, fiber, and some vitamins, there are additional nutrients, vitamins, carbohydrates, and sugars that can only be found in vegetables, fruits, starches, and other protein sources. So, dear reader, depending on your answers to the questions above, the amount of nuts you consume may or may not help you achieve a balanced diet. If you're not sure what a balanced diet looks like, head on over to for more information.

Nuts provide a lot of nutritional benefits, not to mention convenience in the form of a quick and tasty snack. As you might already know, nuts are mostly made up of vegetable protein and unsaturated fat, as well as dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Studies have shown that eating nuts lowers the risks of coronary disease and cardiac death, and reduces serum cholesterol levels and risk of type-2 diabetes in women.

Some may worry that too many nuts will contribute to weight gain, but that doesn’t sound like an issue for you.  Weight gain is a result of calories in versus calories out. While nuts are a calorie-dense food, if the remainder of your diet is mostly low-calorie fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and some lean protein source, you probably aren’t eating more calories than you burn. The amount of calories you need is dependent on a number of factors, physical activity levels included. Eating nuts is even potentially protective against weight gain, as nuts can increase feelings of fullness and replace calories that would be consumed in other foods, leading to smaller and less frequent meals. Further, the number on the scale doesn’t necessarily indicate the health of a person. If you feel good, are living an active lifestyle, and consuming a balanced diet, your nutty obsession should be just fine.

If you are a Columbia student, there are lots of ways to find out more about achieving a balanced diet. Check out Columbia’s get balanced! Guide for Healthier Eating which features information especially for CU students. You can also make an appointment with a Registered Dietician on both the Morningside or CUMC campuses.

Enjoy and happy snacking!


GMOs — okay for consumption?

Dear Reader,

GMOs are controversial — and so, as you might have guessed, the pros and cons are continuously being debated. GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. GM foods are developed — and marketed — because there is some perceived advantage to either producers or consumers. Companies that produce GM foods believe that genetic modification can result in increased production of foods as well as crops that have higher nutritional value.

On the other hand, there are several arguments that GMOs are dangerous, both to humans and the environment. The main concerns about GMOs in relation to human health are the potential to cause allergic reactions, gene transfer to human bacteria and toxicity. No dedicated human experiments with GMOs have been conducted, but animal studies with different genetically modified crops have yielded worrisome results, including demonstrating that GMO consumption is linked with infertility, immune issues, insulin regulation problems and changes in vital organs including the liver, kidneys and gastrointestinal system.

There are also environmental concerns related to GM crops, including their potential effects on ecological systems and their stability in the environment. There is a risk that engineered genes could be introduced into wild populations, harming beneficial species and reducing biodiversity. As of now there has been no evidence that GMOs are a threat to human health, and over two billion acres of genetically modified crops have been cultivated. All GM foods currently available on the international market have undergone risk assessments to determine any impact they may have on human health or the environment.

GMOs remain a controversial issue and many large health organizations have yet to present a perspective on them. Ultimately, each GMO is different and needs to be individually studied and assessed. Keep your eyes and ears open as more information about GMOs becomes available.


What to do about salty sweat stains?

Dear Salty,

It’s no wonder you’re a little salty — committing yourself to working out most days of the week takes hard work and planning. Spending extra time washing workout clothes is the last thing you want to do. Here’s the thing: Nearly everyone sweats, and all sweat is salty. In fact, salty sweat stains are normal, even common. However, the volume and salt concentration will vary from person to person depending on genetics, metabolism, body weight, and environment. For instance, some people sweat so profusely that a crust of salt forms on their skin and clothing during workouts, while others perspire lightly and don’t show any evidence of salt on the skin after a strenuous workout. Luckily for you, there are lots of ways to deal with this issue. Keep reading! 

Since you don’t mention any health concerns or troubling symptoms, instead of altering your diet or water consumption to solve this problem, you may want to first try these other tactics:

  • Wear an undershirt to absorb sweat before it reaches the fabric of your outer black shirt.
  • Bring lots of black shirts to the gym and leave them in a locker. Keep dirty and clean shirts separate, and once you’ve run out of clean ones, take all of them home to wash in one go.
  • Try buying some new workout clothes designed to wick sweat away from the body and dry quickly. Spot clean the stains away after each workout with cold water, and wash the entire shirt thoroughly every two to three uses.
  • Use an antiperspirant, which will help prevent sweat from happening in the first place. Less sweat means less salt to form stains on your clothes. Be careful when applying — antiperspirants can cause stains too.
  • Choose a gym that doesn’t require black shirts. Shirts of other colors may hide the evidence of salty sweat rings better than black ones.
  • For a less expensive option, exercise at home or in the great outdoors.
  • For a sweat-free but challenging cardio workout, try swimming. The cool water will prevent sweat from sticking to your skin or clothes.
  • Don’t exercise in the heat unless you’re acclimatized to such conditions. The amount of salt in sweat averages at approximately 500 milligrams per pound of sweat, but if you aren’t accustomed to working out in hot weather, you can lose up to 1,100 mg of sodium per pound of sweat.

You mentioned trying to decrease the amount of salt in your sweat. This would presumably be done by decreasing the sodium in your diet. While most Americans could benefit from doing this, you may currently be getting just the right amount for your body and it’s not clear whether decreasing salt would make the salt rings go away. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. There are exceptions for individuals of certain demographics — for example, individuals with diabetes and those who are over 51 years of age should consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day. If you are within range, you might want to talk to your health care provider before making alterations to your diet. Check out the intake. In terms of water consumption, check out Not drinking enough fluids? from the Go Ask Alice! archives.

Columbia students have access to the Dodge Fitness Center and the Uris swimming pool, and are encouraged to participate in CU Move, Columbia’s initiative to promote physical activity and healthy living. Additionally, Columbians can meet with a doctor at Medical Services on the Morningside Campus or Student Health at the Medical Center Campus for personalized advice regarding sweat, exercise, and salt intake. For more general information about exercise and fitness, check out the Fitness section of the Go Ask Alice! archives. For tips and tricks related to salt intake and other aspects of a nutritious diet, take a peek at the Get Balanced Guide for Healthier Eating.

Again, nice job maintaining a workout routine — keep it up!


Tongkat Ali — safe aphrodisiac for men?

Dear Reader,

While many people have probably not heard of it, Tongkat Ali has historically been used to treat health problems ranging from fevers to intestinal worms. This herbal extract is most popularly known (no wonder!) as an aphrodisiac for men. Although it comes from a plant in the Southeast Asian rainforests, it is now widely available either as a pill or an instant coffee additive. This herbal supplement, also known as Eurycoma Longifolia (EL), has not shown any severe health consequences in experiments conducted with rats. However, as a non-FDA approved substance which has not yet been tested extensively in humans, caution and careful consideration should be given along with consulting with a healthcare provider.

In one study, rats given various doses of Tongkat Ali were found to have increased sexual activity and greater sperm quality. Bigger effects were seen at higher doses, and doses ranged from 30 to 150 milligrams of drug per one kilogram of body weight (mg/kg). In another experiment with rats, administering doses of 1200 to 2400 mg/kg caused some liver damage in a few test subjects but did not otherwise harm them. While there are not studies of long-term use in animals or humans (including studies in women), researchers suggested further investigation of the impacts on the liver as well as research into sustained use.

If you are considering or taking Tongkat Ali pills, the largest dose usually recommended for humans is 400 milligrams per day, which is far below the toxic dose observed in the rat study. If you prefer Tongkat Ali-based coffee mix (TACM), a small trial with 20 human subjects showed that drinking 21 grams of TACM daily for four weeks improved participants’ ability to orgasm and sexual satisfaction, but had no significant impact on their body mass index (BMI), waistline, erectile function, or blood pressure. It is important to note, however, that the study subjects were overall healthy individuals. As always, if you have any health problems or are taking other medication, it’s best to talk to your health provider before starting any supplement, including Tongkat Ali. Columbia students can make appointments by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or Student Health (Medical Center).

Wishing you safe and pleasurable experiences!


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