Nutrition & Physical Activity

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The body mass index (BMI) and being overweight

Dear Scales,

You've encountered an issue with the body mass index (BMI) that many others have encountered, too! A tremendous amount of press has been given to the BMI charts and the "strict" standards many people feel the U.S. government has imposed upon the population. The truth is most of these articles and news reports don't tell the entire story. To set the record straight, keep reading.

BMI is a ratio of weight to height. BMI is frequently used as a measure of overweight and obesity because it's a quick, easy, and inexpensive measure that correlates pretty accurately with body fat percentage for most people. The key word here is "most." As you've discovered, it doesn't work for everyone. The major shortcoming and the primary point of contention among health care providers is that it cannot decipher between fat and muscle weight. It's a rather simplistic measure that does not take into account other factors such as age, build, and body composition.

The rationale behind these numbers is that, across large population groups, there is an increased prevalence of certain diseases in people with a BMI over 25, and a much greater risk of disease and death in those with a BMI over 30.  BMI is calculated as follows:

BMI=weight (kg) / [height (m)] 2

OR

BMI=weight (lb) / [height (in)] 2 x 703.

The standard weight calculations for overweight and obese adults are as follows: a person with a BMI of 25.0 to 29.9 is classified as overweight; those with a BMI greater than 30 are classified as obese.

When BMI measurements are taken into account with other factors such as family history, gender, race, age, and dietary and exercise habits, it may help health care providers determine a person's risk for developing the following conditions:

  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes (adult diabetes)
  • Stroke
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Sleep apnea and other respiratory problems
  • Endometrial, breast, and colon cancers

List adapted from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An important point here is the relationship between being overweight or, better yet, "overfat", and disease development. BMI often doesn't tell the entire story. A better tool is a person's waist-to-hip measurement ratio (measuring around the widest part of the hips then dividing this number by the measurement around the widest part of the abdomen). The recommended threshold ratio for these two measurements is equal to or less than 1.0 for men and 0.8 for women. Increased risk for the diseases listed above is associated with lower ratios and thus excess abdominal fat — the apple body shape (vs. pear where body fat is primarily carried on the hips and buttocks). When using either this ratio or BMI measurements, other risk factors for developing disease are important to assess. Considering these factors together, health care providers must use their clinical judgment to determine whether or not a person really does need to lose weight.

Many web sites, books, and articles that publish BMI charts tend to simplify this message. A trained athlete or physically fit individual is NOT the target of this message. These BMI charts are a tool to be used as one part of an overall health assessment. Over large population groups, many people with BMIs in the upper range, and high waist measurements or waist-to-hip ratios, are the folks with whom health care providers need to discuss various aspects of health. A fit, well-nourished person with developed muscles may have a higher BMI, but it's likely due to increased muscle mass.

Hopefully, this answer has clarified some of the misunderstanding about BMI. Overall, it is a very limited and highly criticized measure of overweight and obesity; therefore, focus on your overall health, fitness level, dietary variety, and self-satisfaction. Your well-being is certainly much more than just an absolute number.

Alice

Pros and cons of vegetarianism

Dear Reader,

It's a great idea to plan consciously when switching over to a vegetarian diet. Not eating meat can offer many health benefits, as well as addressing environmental and ethical concerns you may have regarding eating animals. However, before making the switch to a meat-free lifestyle, it is important to get a sense of the pros and cons.

Here’s the best news of all: with a well-planned diet, vegetarians can live a totally healthy lifestyle and help contribute to a better planet. The following list describes various benefits of vegetarianism:

  • Plant foods are abundant in nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and protein. They also contain phytochemicals — plant chemicals that are not essential to life, but may help protect against disease — such as beta-carotene. Eating a variety of colors of fruits and vegetables can help ensure that the benefits nature provides are reaped.
  • Reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes. Vegetarians benefit from eating less saturated fat and cholesterol, and higher amounts of complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, certain minerals, and phytochemicals. Cholesterol is only found in animal foods, so vegan diets are completely cholesterol-free.
  • Contribute to the vegetarian cause! Whether you have aim to respect animals, lessen your carbon footprint on the environment, or just want to make a lifestyle change, as a vegetarian you are making your own positive impact on the world. You can be proud that you are living according to the beliefs that you stand for.

Whenever you cut a food group out of your diet, it is important to understand how to replace the vital nutrients that go along with it. While the positives are all fine and dandy, it is important to be aware of the challenges of being a vegetarian:

  • It can be harder to get the protein you need. Protein is important formaintaining and repairing muscle tissue, and manufacturing blood cells, antibodies, hormones, and enzymes. Fortunately, there are plenty of non-meat proteins to supplement your diet.
  • Possible vitamin and mineral deficiencies can develop without a balanced eating plan. Cutting out dairy, meat, fish, and poultry reduces your intake of vitamin B12 (important for nerve transmission and necessary for life), calcium (for strong bones, among other functions), iron (for blood), and zinc (for immunity and healing), just to name a few.
  • Depending on where you live, it may be challenging to adhere to a meat-free lifestyle. For example, living in a big city may provide you with endless veggie options, while a small-town lifestyle may make it more difficult to find healthy substitutions for meat.
  • You may have difficulty explaining your eating habits to family and friends.While it may seem that being a vegetarian is relatively mainstream, certain cultures leave little room for herbivores. You may encounter some sticky situations where people have prepared for you a meaty meal, or perhaps, your friends and family may challenge your decision to remain meat-free.

Remember, what is included in your diet (rather than what is excluded) is what counts. It is extremely important to incorporate a balanced eating plan full of nutrient-rich foods. For help in selecting a healthy eating plan appropriate for your state of health, age, size, activity level, preferences, and moral and ethical values, consult with a registered dietitian. Columbia students can make an appointment with a registered dietician at Medical Services through Open Communicator or by calling (212) 854-7426. Informed choices are the best choices!

Alice

February 23, 2012

507783
I've been vegetarian for over two decades, vegan for the past 6. Most days I get more than the daily recommended allowance of protein and calcium. For B12, there are really good veg supplements. I...
I've been vegetarian for over two decades, vegan for the past 6. Most days I get more than the daily recommended allowance of protein and calcium. For B12, there are really good veg supplements. I also use vegan nutritional yeast (sprinkle over pasta or rice or another savory dish). I'd recommend checking out some vegetarian resources online so you can try going veg in a way that's going to make you feel satisfied and healthy. Veg meet-up groups are a great way to meet some like-minded folks and help give some social support. Personally, going vegan was the best decision I've ever made. I'm now naturally thin (something I definitely wasn't before then), I eat a lot of yummy food each day and always feel satisfied, my health is great, and I feel good about how my choices affect animals and the environment. There's a new film called Vegucated that documents three New Yorkers' experiences going from meat lovers to trying out a veg diet. You might find it interesting. Good luck and enjoy!

Beans cause gassy discomfort — any relief?

Dear Patriski,

In terms of locating naturally occurring sources of alpha-galactosidase, unfortunately you won't have much luck. Aspergillus niger is found in rotting cassava vegetables (also known as yucca). The enzyme alpha-galactosidase is, in turn, isolated from the aspergillus mold and incorporated into Beano tablets along with invertase, a sugar-hydrolyzing enzyme. Alpha-galactosidase and invertase help to relieve gas symptoms due to their ability to break down complex sugars before they become gaseous. If you really like the effects of Beano, stick to it – however, there are cheaper ways to manage your gas that don’t necessitate the use of expensive dietary supplements.

Being knowledgeable about the following causes of gas can provide you with some additional comfort to help reduce gas production:

1. Gas can be caused by swallowed air. Try to eat slowly and chew your food thoroughly. If you tend to gulp beverages, make an attempt to sip instead. Carbonated beverages can also cause belching.

2. Sugar-free foods containing sorbitol or xylitol are poorly digested and can cause gas. Read labels to look for and avoid these ingredients.

3. Lactose intolerance, or the inability to digest lactose, the naturally occurring sugar found in dairy products, causes gas. Try eliminating milk products from your diet for a few days to see if your symptoms improve. If this is effective, you may be somewhat lactose intolerant. Look for supplements and food products that contain lactase, the enzyme needed to break down lactose during digestion, which may help you feel better.

4. High-fiber diets can result in flatulence (gas). If you have suddenly added a great deal of fruits, vegetables, cereals, and whole grains to your diet, the result may well be gastrointestinal discomfort. Try to add these foods to your diet slowly. While 20 - 35 grams of fiber is recommended as part of your average daily intake, you don't want to shock your system by jumping from low or medium fiber intake to a high fiber intake at the drop of a hat. However, you can eat lots of high-fiber brown rice without worrying about passing gas because rice is the only whole grain known not to cause gas.

5. Yes, beans do live up to their reputation, both for being a healthy addition to your diet and for causing gas. Here are methods for "de-gassing" your beans: soak dry beans for at least eight hours and rinse thoroughly before cooking them; if you buy canned beans, drain off the liquid and rinse the beans thoroughly before cooking. This will also help to reduce your sodium intake.

Keep in mind that gas is perfectly normal. Many people assume they produce excessive amounts of gas; however, it’s quite typical to pass gas around 20 times a day!

If none of these suggestions are helpful, talk to your primary care provider, gastroenterologist, or nutritionist about a "complex carbohydrate elimination diet." This is a strict diet that excludes all forms of complex carbohydrates and high-fiber foods (i.e., fresh fruits and veggies, and whole grains). Over time and as tolerated, these food sources are gradually added back to the diet. Columbia students can also reach out to Medical Services (Morningside Campus) or Student Health Services (Medical Center Campus) to make an appointment with a health care provider or nutritionist. You can also take a peek at Columbia’s Get Balanced Guide for Healthier Eating for more ideas.

Alice

September 28, 2012

516832
When preparing dried beans of any variety my grandmother taught me to pre-soak them over night with 2 to 4 tablespoons of salt and an equal amount of baking soda. Just before cooking them drain and...
When preparing dried beans of any variety my grandmother taught me to pre-soak them over night with 2 to 4 tablespoons of salt and an equal amount of baking soda. Just before cooking them drain and rinse them in cold water. She said that it not only made them cook faster but also cut down on the gassy feeling when eating them. Hope this helps you.

September 28, 2007

21332
My husband's grandmother always stuck a peeled raw potato in when she cooked her beans, and threw away the potato when the beans were done cooking, it always seemed to work well for us. The potato...
My husband's grandmother always stuck a peeled raw potato in when she cooked her beans, and threw away the potato when the beans were done cooking, it always seemed to work well for us. The potato absorbed the gassiness of the beans

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

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more tips about healthy eating, fruits, and vegetables, check out the Optimal Nutrition section of the Go Ask Alice! archive, learn more about the tools from Columbia's Get Balanced initiative, or visit Choosemyplate.gov.

Alice

Anorexia, Dexatrim, and Prozac?

Dear Worried friend,

Your question brings up a couple of different, complicated issues. Let's start with your inquiry, about the dangers of mixing Dexatrim and Prozac. Prozac is not, as you stated, in the antidepressant class of MAOI inhibitors. Rather, it is an SSRI, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. These two different groups of drugs are both prescribed to address biological causes of depression, as well as some other psychological conditions. Their use is only one part of such treatment, which should also include counseling in the form of individual, group, or family therapy with a trained social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist.

The main ingredient in Dexatrim is phenylpropanolamine (PPA), which decreases appetite and has been, until recently, a common ingredient in decongestants, as it also relaxes the bronchial tubes. A study by the Yale University School of Medicine revealed that PPA is associated with an increased risk of stroke. Therefore, in November 2000, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a statement asking that manufacturers of products containing PPA replace it with alternative active ingredients. For further important information about this, read the response to Too much Dexatrim?.

If your friend is indeed taking Prozac while also taking Dexatrim, the best bet would be for her to discuss this with her health care providers. Although using these two drugs together is not specifically contraindicated from a medical standpoint, it's possible that there could be adverse reactions, such as an increased or decreased effect of one or both of the drugs, unhealthy changes in heart and blood pressure, or intensified side effects. For example, both Dexatrim and Prozac can cause nausea, headache, trouble sleeping, and nervousness.

There are some other things for your friend to think about, too. One is that PPA is an amphetamine-like drug and can cause people to feel unusually good about themselves and the world while they're taking it. If your friend is taking Prozac to treat symptoms of depression at the same time, it will be difficult to tell which of the drugs is having an effect on her emotions. Discussing this with the health care provider who has prescribed the Prozac will help in figuring out if the anti-depressant is helpful, and, if so, an appropriate dose.

Another complicated aspect of your question has to do with the treatment of eating disorders. One concern is the simple fact that your friend is taking Dexatrim. You state that your friend has anorexia. The hallmarks of anorexia are severely restricted eating and a significant drop in body weight. In fact, Prozac is contraindicated for the treatment of this disorder, as it may actually cause a loss of weight and disinterest in food. It's possible that your friend has been prescribed Prozac because she's depressed (common in eating disorders), yet hasn't revealed the fact that she's struggling with issues around food. On the other hand, Prozac has been found to be helpful in the treatment of bulimia, an eating disorder involving cyclical periods of intense eating or binges, followed by purging of the food by vomiting or other compensatory behaviors. It is very important that your friend be honest with her health care providers and counselors about her patterns of eating and the feelings that prompt her behavior. Only then can she be appropriately diagnosed and helped to find healthier ways of managing food and the emotional stresses in her life.

If you would like to speak to a counselor about your friend, Columbia students can meet with a counselor at Counseling and Psychology Services (CPS) (Morningside) or Mental Health Services (Medical Center). If your friend is a Columbia student (Morningside), she can make an appointment with a healthcare provider by logging on to Open Communicator.  If she is a student at the Medical Center campus, she can contact Student Health.

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

Food's travels through the body

Dear Union of Uranus,

From the way you signed your letter, your question is most likely related to the discharge of food from the colon and "your anus." In order to cover the ins and outs of the process (no puns intended) it’s best to start from the very beginning:

  1. The eater spots a delicious-looking bite to eat (amount of time depends how picky of an eater we’re dealing with).
  2. Food is chewed, lubricated, and partially digested by saliva in the mouth, and then the tongue moves it to the back of the throat. This process takes about one minute to complete.
  3. Chewed and partially digested food is travels through the pharynx and into the esophagus, where it takes about ten seconds to be propeled into the stomach.
  4. The stomach is a hollow, elastic sac where food is churned and mixed thoroughly with digestive juices secreted by the stomach lining. This process takes about two to four hours to complete, depending on the type of food and the amount of food eaten.
  5. Processed food is then released gradually into the small intestine. In the small intestine, digestive juices produced in the liver and pancreas convert carbohydrates, proteins, and fats into chemical mixtures used by the body. The broken down mixtures then pass through the wall of the small intestine into the bloodstream or lymph system if it is fat. This process takes around three to ten hours to complete.
  6. Water and undigested food are then passed into the large intestine, where the water can be absorbed. It takes between seven to sixteen hours for this process to be completed.
  7. The solid waste from the large intestine is then stored in the rectum for a variable period of time (between twelve and fourteen hours). The muscles then push the solid waste out of the anus as feces.

So, as you can see, there is a range of time, usually between 24 and 44 hours. Exactly how long it takes is up to the individual’s digestive system, not to mention what s/he eats. For example, eating fiber-rich foods helps speed up digestion, while eating animal proteins, like meat, poultry and seafood can slow it down.

Bon apetit!

Alice

Recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) of nutrients?

Dear Reader,

RDAs (Recommended Dietary Allowances), prepared by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences, have been around for over 50 years, with periodic updates. The RDA is the average daily dietary intake level that would adequately meet the nutritional needs of nearly all (98 percent) healthy persons. RDAs include nutrients for which there is sufficient scientific evidence that they are required for good health. Their intention has always been to establish "standards to serve as a goal for good nutrition." RDAs provide the basis for evaluating the adequacy of diets of population groups. They are set at a level that includes a safety factor appropriate to each nutrient; so, this level actually exceeds the requirement for most individuals.

The Food and Nutrition Board has established Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs). In addition to RDAs, DRIs include recommendations for food components for which RDAs cannot be established. Some of these include fat, carbohydrate, fiber, and plant estrogens, among others. DRIs also include maximum intake levels. Three dietary intake reference values for DRIs are:

  • Adequate Intake — the dietary intake level that would adequately sustain health when an RDA cannot be determined because of insufficient scientific evidence.
  • Estimated Average Requirement — the estimated dietary intake level that would maintain the health of half of a specified age and sex group.
  • Tolerable Upper Intake Level — the maximum level of daily nutrient intake that's apparently safe and unlikely to cause negative health effects in most healthy individuals.

DRIs and RDAs are not developed for specific individuals, but are for the making of policies for feeding programs, food labeling, and food fortification. The numbers signify levels of each compound that are appropriate for most healthy people in each category. To access information on RDAs and DRIs, check out the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food and Nutrition Information Center website.

Vitamin supplements may contain an amount equivalent to the RDA for DRI, but you'll probably not find a supplement with every imaginable nutrient, vitamin, and mineral. There are innumerable substances that keep us healthy, many of which cannot be packaged in a pill. In addition, many nutrients are difficult for the body to absorb when they come in pill form. Obtaining nutrients directly from a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins is still the recommended manner of giving your body all it needs to be healthy.

To assess whether your current diet is filled with nutrients, check out ChooseMyPlate.gov. You can also speak with your health care provider about whether you need a multivitamin or if the food you eat is sufficient. Students at Columbia can also make an appointment to speak with a registered dietician or a health care provider either through Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC). Take care,

Alice

Ginkgo — what d'ya thinko?

Dear What D'Ya Thinko About Ginkgo,

Gingko (Latin name, Ginkgo biloba) has been part of Chinese traditional medicine for thousands of years. It is extracted from the leaves of the hardy ginkgo biloba tree and is available in a variety of forms, including teas and tablets. Proponents of ginkgo believe that consuming the leaves increases cerebral blood flow and prevents the lumping of platelets in brain tissue. They also believe that ginkgo has other health benefits, such as slowing memory loss, improving cognitive ability, and curing conditions such as asthma, PMS, multiple sclerosis, and sexual dysfunction. For one herb, that's quite a resume!

While some claims on the Ginkgo plant may have some merit, not all are backed by research. Some studies have found that ginkgo biloba has positive effects on cognitive ability, though others have found that this may not be true. Ginkgo has been found to have possible antioxidant properties, which means that it may help the body fight free radicals. Free radicals in the brain attack healthy cells, stealing the cells' electrons. As an antioxidant, ingested ginkgo provides a target for these hungry cells, allowing them to steal ginkgo's electrons rather than from the healthy cells. Ginkgo has been found to be helpful in some patients with claudication (painful legs due to clogged arteries) and dementia. Despite these findings, more research is needed to establish ginkgo as the panacea that it's believed to be.

So, let's say you decide to ginkgo. You may be wondering about the recommended dose. For adults 18 and older, common dosage is typically around 80 to 240 mg, and may be taken two to three times a day (depending on the reason for use). It’s recommended that if you’re just starting to take ginkgo, it’s best to not take any more than 120 mg per day to avoid some gastrointestinal upset. Ginkgo might be safe for children, but it's probably a good idea not to give it to them unless it's under the strict supervision of a health care provider.

Ginkgo, though it is natural, may cause side effects, such as bleeding, headache, nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, and allergic reactions (some of which may be severe). Moreover, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate ginkgo or other supplements. As such, it's recommended you ask your health care provider, if you are considering taking ginkgo, especially if you have a bleeding disorder or if you are taking any other medications/supplements. For more information about ginkgo, you may want to check out the section on supplements and ergonenic aids in the Go Ask Alice! Nutrition & Physical Activity archives.

Doing your homework on complementary and alternative medicine is a wise step to take — be proud of yourself for learning more info before you gink-go or gink-no.

Alice

Dancing for health

Dear Reader,

According to researchers at the Mayo Clinic, social dancing provides the body with many health benefits. It may help reduce stress, increase energy, and improve strength, muscle tone, and coordination. Dancing can also burn as many calories as walking or riding a bike. One factor that determines how many calories you will use is the distance you travel while grooving to the beat. In one study, researchers found that square dancers covered five miles in a single evening. That's a lot of do-si-doing!

Other aspects of dance that contribute to your cardiovascular conditioning depend on how long, how often, and how intensely or vigorously you boogie and get down. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) recognizes the benefits of dance in lowering coronary heart disease risk, decreasing blood pressure, and managing weight. Another plus of dancing is that the weight bearing movements of your steps can strengthen the bones of your legs and hips, important for maintaining bone health as you age. As a result, dancing may be used as part of a rehabilitation program, of course with appropriate supervision.

While we may not all be hip-hopping into our nineties, dancing is one activity we can (hopefully) do for the rest of our lives... and the sociability it provides is part of its allure. It's a great way to make new friends, be creative and expressive, and just plain old enjoy life. And, the best part of dancing is the fun you can have while you're doing something great for your body.

Whatever your preference, there's sure to be a style to get your toes tappin'! Whether it's belly dancing, funk, swing, ballet, jazz, tap, square, hip-hop, the hustle, the tango, or modern dance, classes are popping up all over. Columbia students can join one of numerous student dance clubs (ballroom, latin, swing, oh my!). Visit the Clubs & Organizations page for more information. In addition, you can contact your local gym, YW/YMCA, recreation/community center, or dance studio to see what they offer.

Well, now that you know that dancing is good for you, put on your dancin' shoes and cut a rug!

Alice

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