Nutrition & Physical Activity

Share this

Helping a friend to eat healthier

Dear In a quandary,

Your friend definitely isn't alone, but in order for her to change her behaviors or ingrained patterns, she needs to acknowledge that a problem exists, or see a benefit from making a change. Because food and eating habits are such a personal aspect of our lives, it can be a sensitive area of discussion. To answer your first question, diets that are high in fat, sodium, and calories, and low in fruits, veggies, calcium, and other nutrients, may contribute to the development of diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and osteoporosis, among others. If this factor is a concern to your friend, she may consider changing her patterns. However, if she is healthy now, the thought of developing any of these conditions in the far off future may not be motivation enough for her in the present time to change habits with which she's been comfortable.

One thing is for sure — criticizing and nagging don't work! So, what can you do? First of all, you can suggest spending time together doing some sort of activity. If you can get your friend moving, she may become interested in eating more healthfully. Try to disguise exercise into a fun pursuit. Some ideas include:

  • Going for a walk
  • Swimming
  • Hiking
  • Bike riding
  • Flying a kite
  • Playing Frisbee
  • ice skating
  • Borrowing a dog to bring to the park (or bringing your own) and playing ball

Another tact you can try is to determine something that is important to her, and show her that eating better can help improve the matter. While many people aren't motivated by diseases they can't relate to or that seem intangible, immediate concerns can hold more relevance. For example, skin problems, low energy levels, or stomach discomfort can promote a greater incentive or inclination to change. If she complains about any of these conditions, some appropriate suggestions could include drinking more water than diet soda, substituting a juicy piece of fruit for the chips, or heading over to an enticing salad bar rather than making a quick trip for fast food. Considering and implementing any changes or new patterns are only part of the challenge; maintenance is also key, and can be easier to follow-through when done together with a peer than by one's self. Your can demonstrate your support by bringing over some farm fresh apples, cooking a healthy meal together, going to lunch together at an eatery where healthy choices are available, walking together regularly during lunch breaks, etc.

Remember, gentle suggestions are better received than harsh criticism. Advice that begins with "You should..." may fall on deaf ears. Instead you can try to initiate a discussion, saying something like, "You know, I just read an article that said drinking water is important for keeping skin healthy... and I'm drinking more water as a result." Having a conversation about this subject may get your friend to think, and perhaps try, to take steps leading to healthier patterns of eating and activity. Then again, she may decide not to pursue anything at this time. If this is the case, you can express your concern to your friend, and let her know that if she would ever like to pursue healthier eating habits you are ready to support her. In the mean time, remember why you're friends in the first place and enjoy your time together!

Alice

November 7, 2008

21262

To the reader:

I think you could try to teach your friend about enjoying healthy food. It only works if you are subtle, so work in small steps. Try inviting her over for dinner and cooking...

To the reader:

I think you could try to teach your friend about enjoying healthy food. It only works if you are subtle, so work in small steps. Try inviting her over for dinner and cooking a healthier version of pizza or lasagne or some other food she might recogize. Or take her out for a healthy but filling meal at a good quality restaurant (Italian is often good for this). By doing this the aim is to lead by example: show her that healthy food tastes great, fills you up and can contribute to a fun meal, as well as being good for you. Then she will see that living a healthy lifestyle needn't be torture, in fact it is something that a lot of people (chefs, gourmet food lovers, etc.) deliberately seek! Good Luck!

A sweetener called stevia

Dear Skeptical,

Your skepticism is warranted, considering the label "all natural" does not have one, standard definition or imply “risk-free.” In order to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), sweeteners marketed as “Stevia” may contain only one highly refined component of the stevia rebaudiana plant, called Rebaudioside A. Due to potential health risks, no other components of the stevia plant have been approved by the FDA as food additives or sugar substitutes. Non-food products (often labeled as dietary supplements) containing less refined stevia ingredients are available, and some are even deemed “safe for consumption.” However, the FDA recommends waiting for more conclusive research before consuming large quantities of supplements containing stevia-derived ingredients other than Rebaudioside A.

In addition to Rebaudioside A, most FDA-approved stevia sweetener products also contain fructooligosaccharide, a sugar extracted from non-stevia fruit sources. Some studies show that fructooligosaccharide may actually promote the growth of healthy bacteria, relieve constipation, regulate lipid metabolism, and promote immune system health. Additionally, these sugars may be less detrimental to oral health than table sugar, and may help to treat glucose intolerance. Rebaudioside A and fructooligosaccharide are both approved by the FDA as food additives.

Although some empirical studies show no negative side effects of consuming unrefined stevia plant products and deem them “relatively safe” and “nontoxic,” the FDA has expressed safety concerns related to these products. Such concerns include negative effects on the reproductive, cardiovascular, and renal systems as well as blood sugar regulation issues. Other concerns include the stevia plant’s potential ability to damage genetic material, but independent scientific studies have determined that this type of gene damage is only possible in a laboratory environment, not in the human body. Stevia proponents also cite the plant’s inability to be digested (hence, the reason why it is calorie-free) as evidence that it simply passes through the body without causing any damage.

When it comes to sweeteners and food additives, Rebaudioside A is the only FDA-approved component of the stevia plant. Considering the inconclusiveness of existing research, unrefined stevia supplements and other non-food products should be consumed cautiously. For more information about sugar and other components of a well-balanced diet, check out the get balanced! Guide for Healthier Eating as well as Alice! Health Promotion’s Nutrition Initiatives. Good work keeping yourself informed before you ingest!

Alice

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.

Alice

Hints for holiday stomach stuffers

Dear Stuffed,

Put down your fork and raise your glass. Here's to feasting sensibly, moderately, and contentedly:

Before the meal:

  • Eat your regular daily meals rather than skipping to save room for a big holiday meal. Being overly hungry is a potential recipe for too much holiday cheer. Instead, eat a snack before you head out (vegetables or a piece of fruit are good options) so you will be less likely to overeat when you arrive.
  • If you need to bring a food to share, bring a healthier option. You can also try using ingredient substitutions to reduce the fat, sugar, salt, and calorie content of some of your favorite holiday recipes.
  • ChooseMyPlate.gov also has a guide for making healthier choices during the holidays that you can review. 

As you’re deciding what to put on your plate:

  • Focus more on the people, less on the fare. Try to spend time talking with other guests. Play a game, go for a walk, or try to engage in other activities that are not focused on eating.
  • Take a moment to think about the food options in front of you before deciding what to put on your plate. For example, if you choose stuffing and mashed potatoes, consider balancing your meal with some veggies instead of grabbing a roll with butter.
  • Foods that are high in fat make us feel full. If your holiday table is filled with fried foods or dishes with rich sauces, enjoy a limited amount of these. If the meal is served family style (passed around the table in serving dishes), it's fine to decline some items. For items you do select, take portions that are the amount you usually eat. Many people pile up their plates, and then feel obliged to eat everything.
  • If the holiday meal is served buffet-style, check out all the offerings before getting in line. You can avoid overloading your plate by taking only the items you really want to eat. Buffets are invitations for over-sampling the savories and sweets.
  • If it's appropriate to do so, get up between courses. An extra pair of hands clearing the table is often appreciated and will give you a chance to digest.

Some food for thought while you chew:

  • It can take 20 minutes or more to feel full. During the meal, eat slowly, chew thoroughly, chat with your neighbors, and sip water regularly to let your brain catch up with your stomach and register your fullness. Check in with yourself to see how you're feeling. Are you starting to get satiated? Try to become more in tune with your fullness cues and listen to them.
  • Watch out for the effects of alcohol. It increases one's appetite, setting the stage for overeating (it is also high in calories).

Actions to take after the holiday repast:

  • Take a stroll after the meal to get some exercise and help the food settle in your stomach.

Enjoying the holiday season doesn't have to mean overindulging in holiday cheer. Being mindful of your eating (and drinking) doesn't have to be limiting; it can actually enhance your experience. 

Happy Holidays!

Alice

Nuts about nuts: Are some better for health than others?

Dear Nuts for nuts,

What did one squirrel say to the other squirrel? "I'm nuts about you!" One variety of nut isn't necessarily healthier or better than another. All nuts are healthy, unless you have an allergy or sensitivity to one or more kinds. While individual types vary in nutrients, most nuts contain an array of vitamins and minerals, such as iron, magnesium, zinc, vitamin E, and small amounts of folate, copper, phosphorous, and calcium. Nuts may also contribute to one's daily protein and fiber needs.

The following chart provides nutritional information for some popular nuts. All numbers are for dry roasted, unsalted nuts. Some nuts are roasted in oil, which adds fat and calories without adding additional vitamins or minerals. In addition, some nuts are salted, which may greatly contribute to one's daily sodium intake. Based on that information alone, it seems that dry roasted, unsalted nuts are the way to get the best bang for your buck.

Nut type Calories(per oz.) Fat (g) Sat. Fat (g) Unsat. Fat (g) Protein (g) Fiber (g) Calcium
(% DRI)
Zinc (% DRI) Vit. E (% DRI) Magnesium (% DRI)
Peanuts 166 14 2 12 7 7 1.5 9 19 12
Walnuts 182 18 2 16 4 4 3 7 7 11
Pecans 189 19 2 17 2 2 1 15 8 9
Almonds 167 15 1 14 6 6 7 9 11 20
Cashews 163 13 3 10 4 4 7 15 1 18
Macadamia 200 21 3 18 2 2 2 4 1 7

Nuts are calorie dense foods, meaning they pack a lot of calories into a small amount of food. This can be helpful for people trying to gain weight, but also need not make them off limits to those watching their waistlines. For example, one ounce of most nuts equals about 18 to 24 nuts (a small handful for many, and a tiny handful for larger-handed folks), and contains between 165 and 200 calories. The majority of the calories in nuts is derived from their unsaturated fats — specifically, monounsaturated fat — which is more healthful than saturated fat.

Nuts offer so many valuable nutrients, and can be enjoyed in small servings as well. Why not try to:

  • Mix sliced nuts into plain rice, rice pilaf, or couscous.
  • Sprinkle slivered nuts onto vegetables or into salads.
  • Use slivered or chopped nuts as a yogurt topping.
  • Substitute diced nuts for croutons in salads.
  • Add chopped nuts to vegetable dips or soups.

In conclusion, it's great that you're nuts about nuts. No ifs, ands, or nuts about it!

Alice

Health benefits of yoga

Dear Reader,

The word yoga means "to bring together or merge" — as in joining the mind and body into a single harmonious unit. The general purpose is to create physical and spiritual strength and awareness. However, more than one hundred different types, or schools, of yoga exist and each form provides its own unique cocktail of health benefits.

 

Most yoga sessions are typically comprised of breathing exercises, meditation, and assuming postures (sometimes called poses) that stretch and flex various muscle groups. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health, relaxation techniques, such as those practiced in yoga, can:

  • lessen chronic pain, such as lower back pain, arthritis, headaches, and carpal tunnel syndrome
  • lower blood pressure and heart and breathing rates
  • reduce insomnia

Students of yoga also generally report:

  • higher levels of energy and muscle endurance
  • decreased levels of stress and anxiety
  • increased feelings of general well-being
  • increased flexibility, balance, and mental focus

To get the most out of yoga, those with physical limitations (i.e., chronic conditions, pregnancy) may want to consult a health care provider and/or yoga instructor for suggestions on the best yoga styles to pursue. In all, to find the right type of yoga for you, ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Is physical fitness your goal? If you're looking to tone up or shed a few pounds, Power, Ashtanga, or Bikram ("hot yoga") may be a good fit for you. Though not likely to give you much of an aerobic workout or to greatly increase your muscle strength, these forms will get your blood circulating and your body sweating. Those with hypertension or diabetes should consult a health care provider before delving into these forms of yoga.
  2. Do you have any injuries or chronic conditions? Are you and the gym not on good terms right now? Maybe you're new to yoga and want to ease yourself into it before heading straight for the more pretzel-y poses. If this is the case, gentler forms that focus on body alignment and breathing such as Iyengar, Kripalu, or Viniyoga may be the best option.
  3. Perhaps the physical health component of yoga is secondary for you and you're looking more for the spiritual health benefits. In this case, you may want to look into Kundalini yoga, which focuses on chanting, meditation, and philosophic aspects of yogic practice.

There are many more styles of yoga, and depending on what your personal goals are, the health benefits may vary. For more information about different methods of yoga and how to select the one for you, check out the Yoga Alliance website. The whole idea of yoga is to create balance and harmony between the mind and the body, so shop around to see which forms make you feel the best. Students at Columbia may be able to take yoga classes at Dodge Fitness Center .

Since there are so many different types of yoga, there is no straightforward answer to your question. However, by assessing what you want to get out of your individual yoga practice, you ought to find a style that fits your goals. Namaste!

Alice

Unscrambling conflicting info about eggs

Dear Not yet an Eggspert (but hopefully soon-to-be one),

You're right — eggs are a great form of protein, among other nutrients. The reason you hear different recommendations is because they vary depending on a person's health. Each person responds to dietary cholesterol differently, meaning that eggs may have more of an effect raising one person's blood cholesterol than another's. Unfortunately, we can't tell who will be affected in advance. If you're a healthy person, the American Heart Association says you should consume 300 mg or less of dietary cholesterol per day. If you have any of the following risk factors, 200 mg or less is recommended:

  • Family history of heart disease
  • Total cholesterol over 240 mg/dl
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • You smoke

One whole egg contains between 213 - 220 mg of cholesterol. The fat, cholesterol, and most of the vitamins and minerals are found in the yolk. By the way, the saturated fat content of an egg is less than 2 grams, which is low. If you are in good health and know that your total blood cholesterol is below 200 mg, it is probably okay to have one whole egg a day if you limit other sources of cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends 3 - 4 egg yolks per week for healthy individuals, probably because they expect that people will eat other foods that have cholesterol — these include all other animal-based products, some containing more cholesterol than others. To give you an idea:

  Food Item

Dietary Cholesterol (mg)
  whole milk (1 cup)   35
  skim milk (1 cup)   4
  cheese (1 oz.)   20 - 30
  butter (1 T.)   35
  beef (3.5 oz.)   70 - 100
  chicken (3.5 oz.)   75 - 90
  shrimp (3.5 oz.)   215
  cod (3.5 oz.)   65


If you're eating eggs and other high cholesterol foods often, it would be wise to have your blood cholesterol levels checked regularly to be sure that they don't suddenly rise.

Whipping up omelets using one whole egg and two or more egg whites is a good idea. This will give you a nice, fluffy dish with flavor, too. If you're looking for other low-cost nutritious foods, try preparing simple bean dishes. Since the fiber in beans helps to lower blood cholesterol levels, this could be a healthy alternative for egg-less times.

Have an egg-cellent day,

Alice

What's the main purpose of electrolytes?

Dear Reader,

Electrolytes are vital to one's health and survival. They are positively and negatively charged particles (ions) that are formed when mineral or other salts dissolve and separate (dissociate) in water. Since electrolytes carry a charge, they can conduct electrical current in water, which itself in its pure form is a poor conductor of electricity. This characteristic of electrolytes is important because the current enables electrolytes to regulate how and where fluids are distributed throughout the body, which includes keeping water from floating freely across cell membranes.

Basically, cells need to be bathed in fluids — inside and out. To control fluid passage across cell membranes, cells regulate the movement of electrolytes into and out of them, which causes water to follow the charged particles around wherever they go. These actions help maintain a state of fluid balance. This is also how electrolytes transport nutrients into cells and wastes out of them. The difference in electrical balance inside and outside of cells also allows for transmission of nerve impulses, contraction or relaxation of muscles, blood pressure control, and proper gland functioning. In addition, the presence of electrolytes determines the acidity or pH of some fluids, especially blood.

As you can see, our bodies have developed mechanisms to keep electrolytes within specific ranges. If one loses large amounts of fluids quickly, however, electrolytes may become unbalanced. This imbalance can occur through vomiting, diarrhea, excessive sweating, serious burns, or wounds. In these cases, water and electrolytes need to be replaced. Life-threatening conditions may result if the losses are severe.

A well balanced diet usually supplies an adequate amount of electrolytes. The major ones are sodium, potassium, and chloride; others include calcium, magnesium, phosphate, and bicarbonate, to name a few. Most Americans get plenty of sodium and chloride from what they eat. Including five or more daily servings of fruits and veggies will provide sufficient potassium. Sports drinks containing these substances are usually only recommended for endurance events lasting over an hour.

Alice

Why do we need vitamin A?

Dear Reader,

Vitamin A is an essential, fat-soluble vitamin that has many diverse benefits for humans. Vitamin A promotes eyesight and helps us see in the dark; aids in the differentiation of cells of the skin (lining the outside of the body) and mucous membranes (linings inside of the body); helps the body fight off infection and sustain the immune system; and, supports growth and remodeling of bone. In addition, dietary vitamin A, in the form of beta carotene (an antioxidant), may help reduce your risk for certain cancers.

Adequate vitamin A intake is essential to human health. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to night blindness (inability to see in the dark or to recover sight quickly after being exposed to a flash of bright light in the dark) and xerophthalmia (progressive blindness that becomes irreversible if not treated in time with vitamin A).

Vitamin A deficiency can also reduce the health and integrity of skin and other epithelial tissues. The effect on skin can result in dry skin and hyperkeratosis (the development of clumps of skin around hair follicles). The effect on epithelial tissues can negatively affect the digestion and absorption of nutrients and cause infections of major systems and their organs (i.e., gastrointestinal, nervous/muscular, respiratory, and urogenital). In addition, bone growth can stop and normal bone remodeling can become impaired, resulting in anemia and weakened immunity.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin A is measured in retinol equivalents (RE), retinol being the active form of vitamin A. For adult men, the RDA is 900 micrograms of RE per day and for adult women it is 700 micrograms of RE per day.

Despite its benefits, too much Vitamin A can cause toxicity, the effects of which can vary depending on its source.  Excessive intake of vitamin A in dietary form is not harmful, but will cause one's skin to turn yellow in color. In contrast, large dose supplements (10 - 15 times the RDA) of vitamin A (as retinol) is harmful, and could result in the development of a fatty liver (hepatomegaly), dry skin, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, weakness, headaches, anorexia, and/or possibly increase the risk of birth defects among pregnant women. Symptoms depend upon whether or not vitamin A intake was taken over a long period of time (chronic) or a single excessive dose at one point in time (acute). In general, fat-soluble vitamins should not be consumed in excess of the recommendations because, unlike water-soluble vitamins in which the excess is excreted out of the body, an excess of fat-soluble vitamins will be stored and accumulated in the body.

It is highly recommended that vitamin A be consumed in the diet rather than from supplements. The richest sources of dietary vitamin A are liver, fish liver oils, milk, milk products, butter, and eggs. Liver is an especially rich source because vitamin A is primarily stored in the liver of animals and humans. Vitamin A is also found in a variety of dark green and deep orange fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, spinach, butternut squash, turnip greens, bok choy, mustard greens, and romaine lettuce. Beta carotene is the most active carotenoid (the red, orange, and yellow pigments) form of vitamin A. In addition, cooking (but not overcooking) increases the bioavailability of carotenoids in plant foods and absorption of dietary vitamin A is improved when consumed along with some fat in the same meal.

Hope this helps,

Alice

St. John's wort

Dear M,

What’s the word on St. John’s wort? Also known by its botanical name, Hypericum perforatum, this supplement is derived from a yellow flowering plant. It has been used — with mixed results — as an herbal remedy for a wide range of ailments, including mild to moderate depression, menopausal symptoms, somatization disorder (when mental experiences are converted into physical symptoms in the body), and wound healing. Research suggests that St. John's wort raises levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine (different neurotransmitters that help boost morale and mood), but the active ingredient that produces this effect is still unknown. More research is needed to better understand how St. John’s wort works and what beneficial effects it may have on health. You also asked about the recommended dosage for this supplement. How much of the supplement to take and the number of times you'll need to take it daily will vary depending upon the condition you wish to treat.

Although the evidence is mixed, there are a number of studies that suggest St. John’s wort can be effective in treating depression without the side effects common to traditional anti-depressant medications (It’s good to note that it’s not recommended for the treatment of severe depression). Unlike prescription anti-depressants, which can cause side effects such as lowered sex drive and delayed ejaculation and/or orgasm, the same sexual side effects have not been associated with the use of St. John's wort. However, this does not mean that the supplement is free from potential adverse side effects, some of which include:

  • Fatigue
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Vivid dreams
  • Headache
  • Skin rash
  • Gastrointestinal discomfort, such as diarrhea
  • Allergic reactions
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Increased sensitivity to sunlight
  • Confusion
  • Anxiety

Due to the lack of scientific evidence, it’s hard to know how taking St. John’s wort may affect different individuals. You may want to be especially wary of taking this supplement if you’re:

  • Taking prescription medications. Anti-depressant medications, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and HIV/AIDS medications combined with St. John’s wort can lead to possibly dangerous interactions. Additionally, St. John’s wort can affect how the body metabolizes medicine, which may make certain medications less effective. If you’re using any other medications, prescription or otherwise, it’s best to let your health care provider know before taking this herbal supplement.
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding. Limited research has been done on women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Until more is known, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding are advised not to take St. John's wort.
  • Have certain health conditions. Components of St. John's wort may raise blood pressure, possibly resulting in a stroke. Those who are already at risk of high blood pressure should be especially cautious.

As a rule, it’s helpful to remember that "natural" does not necessarily mean safe. Since St. John's wort is an herbal supplement and not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the quality of the supplement may vary. For more even more detailed information, check out the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine website. Before trying St. John's wort, or any other natural supplement, it’s recommended that you talk with your health care provider. Doing so may help you gather all of the necessary information to decide wort the best course of action is for you.

Alice

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

Medical Services (Morningside)

Student Health Service (CUMC)


Syndicate content