Nutrition & Physical Activity

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Do diet colas increase appetite?

Dear Hungry after Diet Cokes,

People have varying reactions to diet sodas. Whether they're due to the aspartame (brand name, Nutrasweet), or something else, is a good question. Many studies have investigated the effect aspartame has on appetite because some people find it increases the desire to eat, while others notice it suppresses it. Questions remain because the results are not consistent. Even when blood sugar levels were measured after drinking an aspartame-sweetened beverage, some levels increased, others decreased, and the rest remained unchanged.

Most likely the caffeine in the soda isn't what's making you hungry. Caffeine is generally regarded as a mild appetite suppressant. Don't get any ideas here, because it is not successful in weight control. Caffeine's effect on appetite is short lived. Studies on this subject have consistently shown that caffeine is not an effective weight loss aid. In terms of caffeine content, a 12-oz. can of diet cola typically has about 35 mg of caffeine while a 12-oz. cup of brewed coffee has about 150 - 200 mg.

Chemical effects aside, here's another possibility: lots of people substitute a diet soda for a snack, or even worse, a meal. Ignoring your hunger denies your body the energy it needs. Instead of feeling satisfied from the soda, your need to eat becomes more pronounced. It may not be the aspartame, but the lack of food that's driving your appetite. Take notice of when the diet soda makes you hungry. If it has been a few hours since you've eaten, you probably need some nourishment. Instead of having that diet soda, try to eat a healthy and satisfying snack (or meal, if a longer time has passed).

If you find that the diet soda makes you hungrier when you're having it with a meal, consider whether your meal is filling. Substitute water for the diet soda and see if you feel the same way. If you're still hungry afterwards, then you need to re-work your meal. Either way, it's a good idea to cut down on the diet soda. Try water or seltzer with a spritz of juice for added flavor instead. Better yet, some milk or juice may help to fill you up and provide some valuable nutrients.

Bon appetit!


Is it better to be fit and fat, or unfit and thin?

Dear Reader,

It's hard to say if weight or fitness has a greater impact on overall health, so there's really no clear-cut answer to your question. However, recent research indicates that we should reconsider our beliefs about the relationship between weight and fitness. Weighing a lot or “being fat” is not always a sign of poor health and weighing a smaller amount or “being thin” is not always a mark of physical fitness or good health. And no matter what your size, being physically active on the regular has its benefits.

Many health professionals emphasize the importance of determining a person’s body max index (BMI), which is an estimate of body fat based on your height and weight. BMI is often thought to be a good indicator of the health conditions a person might be at greater risk for. However, the labels of “underweight,” “normal,” and “overweight” can be misleading. For example, some professional athletes are classified at either extreme simply because of how their muscle and fat are distributed. So BMI alone is not necessarily an accurate reflection of a person’s overall fitness.

Clearly, being fit is much more complex than maintaining a particular weight or having a specific BMI. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), physical fitness is measured by heart and lung performance, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, and body composition (ratio of "lean mass" to fat). You’ll notice that weight and BMI are not included. While your weight does not necessarily indicate your fitness level, the CDC emphasizes that being “overweight” may factor into an increased risk for conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.

It’s important to remember that not all body fat is unhealthy. In fact, different types of fat serve various functions in the body. White fat stores energy and produces hormones that regulate insulin in the body. Brown fat can burn white fat for calories and provide warmth. Studies have shown that lean individuals typically have more brown fat than those who are overweight. Location of fat on the body makes a difference, too. Subcutaneous fat is the type that can be found right under the skin. This differs from visceral fat, which is fat that surrounds your internal organs. When these types of fats are found in excess around the stomach and waist (particularly visceral fat), it can increase the risk for diabetes, heart disease and stroke. If you have excess fat found primarily in the lower parts of the body, like the thighs, you may not have the same type of health risks.  

Don’t forget that lifestyle choices are also a sizeable component of overall fitness. For example, someone who does not fall within the "overweight" BMI weight range but is a regular smoker might have less heart and lung capacity than someone who is within the "overweight" BMI weight range. Smoking could also put them at a greater risk for serious conditions like lung disease. By the same token, a person within the "overweight" BMI weight range who gets more physical activity than someone in the "normal" BMI weight range might have a healthier heart and stronger muscles.

No matter how much you weigh, it is recommended that adults get 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity, in addition to muscle strengthening activities on two or more days in a week. Need some more information (and maybe a little motivation) to get and stay active? Click on over to the CDC Physical Activity website for tips on activities, videos, and more. If you’re a Columbia student, check out CU Move, where you can learn how to get involved in physical activity on campus and find helpful information about how to stay fit.

Every body get moving now, ya hear!


Herbal teas tame the munchies, but are they a healthy substitute?

Dear rebuffing the munchies with tea,

You pose an interesting question. Herbal teas are brewed from flowers, leaves, and roots of plants other than Camellia sinensis (where black, green, and oolong teas come from). Herbal teas usually contain no caffeine, and therefore "count" towards your daily water needs. If you started drinking herbal tea as opposed to going dry, you've improved your fluid balance. Is it healthy to drink tea instead of eat? Well, that really depends. If you find that going for a cup of tea helps you curb snack time when you're not hungry anyway, then go right ahead.

However, if you really are hungry and it's time for a meal or a snack, eliminating replacing food with a beverage is not such a good idea. Ignoring your hunger only puts you more out of touch with your body's signals. If you put off eating by drinking tea, you may be famished by mealtime. At that point, it may be difficult to control the amount you eat.

A healthy eating plan includes a wide variety of foods in reasonable amounts: lots of different fruits and veggies, whole grains, low-fat dairy, legumes, lean meats, fish, and poultry, and heart-healthy fats (e.g., monounsaturated from olive and canola oils). If sipping herbal tea helps you keep your intake of snack or junk food to a minimum, fine. If you like a little sweetness, honey has no health advantages over table sugar. And if you find you are drinking a lot of herbal tea, you may want to vary the type, so as not to overdo any one food or herb.

To get professional advice on healthy nutrition, Columbia students can speak with a nutritionist at Medical Services. Appointments are available online through Open Communicator, or by calling x4-2284.

Lastly, let's de-bunk the myth that drinking water makes you gain weight. Water by itself doesn't cause weight gain in the form of body fat. Unless you are drinking highly sweetened beverages, water contains no calories. Drinking sufficient water aids digestion, and along with dietary fiber, prevents constipation. It can also dilute the concentration of excess sodium in the body, and can help reduce fluid retention. Plus, drinking water helps you steer clear of dehydration, which can cause difficulty concentrating, fatigue, weakness, kidney stones, and even more severe conditions. Drink up!


December 17, 2004


I drink herbal tea every day to curb unwanted snacking habits. However, I also wanted to add that some herbal teas are natural diuretics (green, black, oolong) and make you urinate more...


I drink herbal tea every day to curb unwanted snacking habits. However, I also wanted to add that some herbal teas are natural diuretics (green, black, oolong) and make you urinate more often. While this can have positive detoxification benefits on the human body, it can also strip the body of necessary nutrients in the process.

Make sure you eat colorful meals to replenish yourself. Good luck and happy steeping.

Weight training: Do I need to change my workout to see results?

Dear Reader,

The body does adapt to weight lifting, so you won't see results if you continue with the same routine. After weeks or months of training, the same exercises that once exhausted you may seem almost effortless. To experience continued improvement in fitness, you need to challenge your body by making your workouts progressively harder in one way or another.

Although people change at different rates, it's generally recommended that people make a few alterations in their program every 4 to 8 weeks for continued results. You don't need to transform your entire workout, but modifying your routine slightly will help keep your muscles challenged. Here are some basic training variables to take into consideration when you're changing your workout, but only change one variable at a time:

This refers to the number of times you work a muscle per week; 2 - 3 times per week is optimal. Muscles need rest between workouts, so leave at least 24 - 48 hours between training the same muscle.

This refers to the weight used to perform the exercise, which may be in pounds or kilograms. The weight will affect the number of repetitions and the number of sets you're able to do. Beginners should use weights that allow them to do 12 - 15 repetitions and 1 to 2 sets of each activity. Use trial and error to find the appropriate resistance level: decrease the weight if you can only lift it a few times; increase the weight if you can easily lift it sixteen times or more. If/When you're upping the amount of resistance you use, do not increase it by more than 5 percent per week.

Also called "reps," this term refers to one complete action of an exercise. The heavier the weight, the fewer the number of repetitions you need to perform. Beginners should start with 1 to 2 sets of 12 to 15 repetitions. The last repetition should be somewhat difficult to finish — again, change the weight you use if this number of reps is too easy or hard.

Training Sets
These are a pre-determined number of repetitions of a specific activity. Beginners start with 1 to 2 sets of each exercise and increase the number of sets as they become stronger.

Rest and Recovery
This refers to the amount of time between sets and between training sessions. As you increase resistance, you'll need longer periods of rest, so your muscles can recover. Rest for at least 30 seconds between sets and for 24 to 48 hours between training sessions for the same muscle group.

Training Method
As you become stronger, you may progress to more advanced variations of activities for each muscle group. Performing such exercises stresses the muscle(s) in slightly different ways.

For even more variety, try throwing some of the following suggestions into the mix:

  • Work a different combination of muscle groups each day — i.e., back and biceps one day; chest, shoulders, and triceps one day; and legs and abdominals one day.
  • Do a total body workout 2 or 3 times a week.
  • Change the order in which you perform exercises (although larger muscles should be trained first).
  • Increase (or decrease) the number of activities for each muscle group.
  • Vary the type of exercises you do — i.e., progress to more advanced activities; use free weights; and/or vary the machines you use.

Keep in mind that if you increase resistance, you need to decrease repetitions and increase recovery time between exercises. If you add more sets, you'll need to decrease the number of repetitions. It may help to work with a Certified Personal Trainer to create a schedule you can work with over a period of months, tailored to your needs, abilities, and fitness goals.


Foods plentiful in potassium

Dear Reader,

Don't monkey around and limit yourself to bananas! Although bananas are known to be rich in potassium (one medium banana has about 422 milligrams), there are plenty of fresh, whole foods available that can supply you with an abundance of the essential mineral. Some of the best sources include:



Potassium (in milligrams)

Potato, baked with skin

1 small


Prune juice

1 cup


Tomato paste

¼ cup


 White beans, canned

½ cup


Plain yogurt, low- or non-fat

½ cup


Orange juice

1 cup


 Cod, cooked

 3 oz.


 Spinach, cooked

½ cup


Skim milk

1 cup


Apricots, dried

¼ cup



½ cup


Table adapted from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The Adequate Intake (AI) for adults is currently 4,700 milligrams per day. AI refers to an amount of a nutrient that is suitable for most people, but also means that some people may be fine with getting slightly less than the AI amount.  While this may seem like a lot, eating a well-balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes will likely satisfy your potassium AI. Potassium plays an integral part in the body, maintaining the balance of fluids and electrolytes inside your body's cells. It also has a hand in normalizing blood pressure, muscle contraction, and transmission of nerve impulses.

Potassium levels can drop while sweating, dieting, using diuretics or laxatives, vomiting, or during bouts of diarrhea. When your potassium levels drop severely, your body can no longer detect the need for water. Severe losses can result in heart arrhythmias, confusion, nerve damage, and paralysis, while generally low potassium intake can raise blood pressure, worsen glucose intolerance, increase metabolic acidity, accelerate calcium bone loss, and increase the likelihood of developing kidney stones. Muscle weakness, cramping, and/or nausea may indicate a potassium deficiency.

Eating a well-balanced diet rich in fresh, whole foods is your best source of potassium. Though most Americans don’t get enough potassium, some folks, such as those with kidney disease and those who take certain medications may need to health care provider about a lower potassium intake.  Potassium supplements are not recommended unless under the direction of a health care provider because they can be dangerous for a healthy adult.


A bowl of oatmeal a day keeps the cholesterol at bay?

Dear Haulin' Oats,

According to the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may authorize a health claim only if there is significant scientific agreement that it is true — meaning that the claim must be accurate and not misleading to consumers. In 1997, the FDA allowed whole oat food manufacturers to make the health claim that their products reduce the risk of heart disease. Scientifically, the basis for this assertion is that the dietary fiber found in oats has been shown to help lower cholesterol, one of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Oats contain beta-glucan, a water-soluble fiber thought to decrease LDL (low density lipoprotein, the harmful cholesterol) and total cholesterol. Since soluble fiber has a high water-holding capacity, it becomes gooey when dissolved in water. This feature allows soluble fiber to travel slowly through the digestive tract and attach to bile acids in the intestine, and then carry the acids out of the body as waste. Since bile acids are made from cholesterol, soluble fiber helps with the absorption of less dietary cholesterol.

In order to put the health claim on the food label, the oat item must be whole oat and provide at least 0.75 grams of soluble fiber per serving. In addition, the health claim must also include the words, "Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol" rather than “Diets high in oats;” otherwise, consumers may think that eating oats is all they need to do to lower their risk of heart disease.

So, how much oats does a person really need to get the health benefits? Research has shown that two servings of oats daily can reduce cholesterol two to three percent beyond what is achieved with a low-fat diet alone. Other sources of soluble fiber may help instead of, or in addition to, the oats. Some examples of dietary soluble fiber include:

Food Serving Size Soluble fiber (grams)
Kidney beans (cooked) ½ cup 2.0
Pinto beans (cooked) ½ cup 2.0
Brussels sprouts (cooked) ½ cup 2.0
Oat bran (dry) 1/3 cup 2.0
Orange 1 medium 1.8
Oatmeal (dry) 1/3 cup 1.3
Apple 1 medium 1.2
Broccoli (cooked) ½ cup 1.1
Grapefruit ½ medium 1.1
Spinach (cooked) ½ cup 0.5
Brown rice (cooked) ½ cup 0.4
Whole wheat bread 1 slice 0.4
Grapes 1 cup 0.3

To reduce the risk for heart disease further, it is necessary to keep weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure at healthy levels, don't smoke, and exercise regularly. Also it is beneficial to munch on plenty of fruits, veggies, and whole grains. For more information on healthy eating, you can check out the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) MyPlate website.

Lastly, while oat cereals are part of a healthy eating plan, if you can't stand them, don't force feed yourself. You can incorporate many other strategies and dietary sources of soluble fiber into your lifestyle to achieve better heart health. To life!


Good vs. bad fats

Dear Curious,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • carry flavors
  • impart desirable textures — smooth, creamy, and crispy, to name a few
  • give us a sense of fullness and satisfy hunger
  • are needed to absorb and store certain vitamins and plant chemicals
  • can contribute to a person's enjoyment of food
  • are essential building blocks in cell production, maintenance, and repair
  • provide and store energy for the body's use

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


Will skipping breakfast and lunch lead to weight loss?

Dear Trying to be a good friend,

Although your friend may have good reasons for losing weight, you are right in saying that skipping meals is not the way to do it. Even though skipping meals might mean your friend is eating fewer times a day, it doesn't mean that she will lose as much weight as she thinks she will. Eating at regular intervals is important because it helps keep the metabolic rate up. If a person goes all day without eating, the body goes into starvation mode. This means her/his metabolic rate will slow down, and her/his body will conserve energy and expend fewer calories. When s/he does eat, s/he may have problems being able to stop when full. When someone ignores the hunger and satiety signals for an extended period of time, it can be difficult to tell when s/he is hungry or full when eating. This could cause your friend to overeat and possibly even gain rather than lose weight.

Additionally, going for hours without eating deprives the brain of glucose, which is needed for normal functioning. Lack of glucose to the brain can lead to irritability, dizziness, and fainting, as well as more serious conditions like hypoglycemia. Not eating regularly throughout the day puts your friend at a higher risk for long-term nutritional deficiencies including anemia, stunted growth (depending on her age), loss of bone or incomplete bone development, decreased immune function, amenorrhea (loss of menstrual periods), decreased thyroid function, increased susceptibility to colds and infections, low energy levels, poor concentration and cognitive development, and gum infections and poor dental health, just to name a few. This is because one meal a day, no matter the size, is unlikely to provide a person with all the nutrients s/he needs to function properly.

If you are comfortable with it, you can tactfully let your friend know how eating only one meal a day, regardless of size, is detrimental to her health. Advise her to try several small meals or snacks over the course of the day, rather than only one meal once a day. Physical activity should also be incorporated into her daily routine in order to encourage healthful and safe weight loss. Your friend could also consult with a registered dietitian or health care provider for guidance on safely achieve her weight loss goals. If she is a Columbia student, she can contact Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC) to make an appointment with a dietitian and/or a health care provider. For more of the skinny on healthy eating, feel free to check out Alice!’s Nutrition & Physical Activity archives and the Get Balanced! Guide to Healthier Eating Your concern and thoughtful question shows that you are a good friend indeed.


Health benefits of fish oils

Dear Curious,

Somthing's fishy about your lab results. The improvement in your cholesterol levels may be due to the foods you replaced with the fish, rather than the fish in and of itself. The fats found in some varieties of fish, omega-3 fatty acids, reduce triglyceride levels in the blood, but generally do not affect cholesterol levels.

However, you're still doing yourself a favor by feasting on fish. Eating fish offers many major health advantages. The primary benefit found from including fish oils in your diet is the lowered risk for sudden cardiac death. This means that fish eaters decrease their chance of dying suddenly from a heart attack (keep in mind that there are different types of heart attacks).

Two mechanisms explain how eating fish reduces the chance of heart attack. First, it seems that fish oil fatty acids reduce blood clotting by decreasing the stickiness of blood platelets. Second, omega-3 oils may play a role in stabilizing heart rhythms. It could be that the electrical impulses that go awry during some heart attacks are preserved in fish eaters. These protective qualities may work together, resulting in the reduced risk of sudden cardiac death that has been observed among fish consumers. Other possible health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are their potential to help lower blood pressure and protect against some forms of stroke.

Remember, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. There are certain risks associated with eating too much fish. The main risk has to do with the toxicity of environmental contaminants, primarily mercury, which ends up in fish due to environmental pollution. Because of this, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are often advised to avoid fish. In addition, there are various recommendations for eating fish to avoid consuming dangerous levels of mercury, as its toxicity can damage the brain, kidneys, and lungs. Mercury levels may be especially high in shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish.

But in moderate amount, fish can be beneficial, especially for people eating a western diet that is often low in omega 3s. Good sources of omega 3 include:

  • Shrimp
  • Salmon
  • Mackerel (watch out for the higher mercury levels in king mackerel)
  • Rainbow and lake trout
  • Sardines
  • Halibut
  • Pollock
  • Oysters
  • Catfish
  • Albacore, blue fin, and yellow fin tuna (including the canned type)
  • Striped sea bass
  • Turbot
  • Swordfish (watch out for higher mercury levels)

Fish oil supplements, on the other hand, contain almost no toxic contaminants and thus are safe. However, they can cause gastric symptoms, so it is best to take them with food. People with low blood pressure or who are taking medication for low blood pressure should also be careful about eating too much fish, since the fish oil could lower blood pressure even more. In very high amounts, fish oils can have some anti-coagulant effects, causing nosebleeds in some people.

Eating these jewels of the sea even once or twice a week may lead to heart healthy benefits. Obviously an all-around healthy diet will provide even more protection from heart disease, and other maladies, too.


Dining out's effects on health

Dear Out to lunch bunch,

Restaurants, fast food joints, and delis are often convenient for a quick meal and provide a welcome opportunity to socialize. However, there are a couple of ways in which eating out may be less than favorable for your health. The specific effects will vary depending on the type of restaurants and dishes you choose, which is why educating yourself is a great place to start. Here are some reasons why eating out can make it hard to maintain a healthy and balanced diet:

  • Calorie overload: While restaurants and fast food joints have a knack for making tasty and unique foods, the dishes often have more calories than meals you’d make at home. Researchers studying chain restaurants found that the average entrée had 674 calories, the average side had 260 calories, the average beverage had 419 calories, and the average dessert had 429 calories. A bit of math reveals that a single meal out could add up to over 1,000 calories! Depending upon your specific caloric needs, you could be knocking out half of your recommended daily caloric intake with a single meal. Fortunately, many restaurants make calorie information available, which can be a useful resource if you’re eating out often.
  • Mega portions: One of the reasons restaurant food is often higher in calories is because of the large portions. Have you ever felt like your eyes were bigger than your stomach? You’re not alone. It’s been well established that when people are presented with large portions, many will eat far beyond the point of feeling full. Large restaurant portions can make it easy for you to fall into overeating without even realizing it.
  • Scads of salt: The sodium content of food in eating establishments is often sky high: 1,848 mg per 1000 calories in a fast food joint, and 2,090 mg per 1,000 calories at a sit-down restaurant. Those numbers are creeping up on the recommended daily limit of 2300 mg per day, so looking for dishes containing lower amounts of sodium can help you keep your levels in check.

The type of restaurants you frequent also matters as far as health risks are concerned. For those who are into the burgers-and-fries joints, research shows an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, as well as an overall lowered intake of key nutrients. For those who prefer fast-food restaurants that primarily serve sandwiches and subs, there tends to be increased intake of fat and sodium. (However, weight gain has not been associated with consumption of foods from these establishments). Finally, for those heading off to full-service restaurants, studies show that even though you’re probably consuming adequate amounts of fruits and veggies, you’re exposed to high sodium content, which increases your risk of developing high blood pressure.

If you’re ever interested in trying your hand in the kitchen to avoid some of these health risks of eating out, you can read No time to cook or visit for some ideas on quick and nutritionally-balanced meals you can make. Additionally, here are a couple of ideas on ways to make more healthful choices when you do go out:

  • Order water, low-fat or fat-free milk, or unsweetened tea to drink in order to avoid beverages with lots of added sugar.
  • Ask for whole-wheat bread for sandwiches.
  • Start with a salad packed with veggies to help control hunger and feel satisfied sooner.
  • Ask for dressings to be served on the side so that you can have control over how much you use, add little or no butter to your food, and avoid dishes with creamy sauces or gravies.
  • Choose main dishes with lots of veggies.
  • Order steamed, grilled, or broiled dishes instead of those that are fried or sautéed.
  • At buffet restaurants, order an item from the menu instead of going for the all-you-can-eat option.
  • Choose fruits for dessert.
  • If the portions at a restaurant are larger than you want, split it with a friend, order an appetizer-sized portion, take leftovers home, and remember that you don’t have to “clean your plate.”
  • Pack a healthy snack for yourself (e.g., fresh fruit, veggies, or a handful of nuts) if you’re going to be out and about to avoid stopping to buy an unhealthy snack.

List adapted from

Finally, whether you choose to eat out regularly or just for the occasional treat, a strategy known as “mindful eating” might be a handy tool. Mindful eating involves actively making yourself aware of why and how you are consuming food and the way your body feels when eating. Are you consciously aware of when you’ve eaten your fill, or is eating more of an automatic reflex? Asking yourself questions like this may help you make more balanced menu choices and avoid the some of negative effects of eating out, although further research on mindful eating is still emerging.

There’s certainly a lot of information to digest on the effects of eating out! But whether you’re eating on the run or whipping up a meal at home, maintaining a balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is key. As they say, everything in moderation!


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

get balanced! Guide for Healthier Eating

Nutrition Services (Morningside)

Student Health Service (CUMC)

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