Nutrition & Physical Activity

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Is margarine really better than butter?

Dear Baffled Over Butter,

You may be baffled over butter, but it sounds like you've got a good grip on chemistry! Some of the margarines sold in stores today are still made from oil that has been infused with hydrogen atoms, firming it up into a semi-hard or solid form at room temperature. This process is known as hydrogenation, and it allows the margarine to contain less saturated fat than butter. Unfortunately, hydrogenation also forms something known as trans fat, which actually does more damage to your body than saturated fat. (Both butter and margarine end up containing the same amount of total fat.)

Margarines made from hydrogenated oil usually appear in a solid stick form, similar to how butter is sold. Other kinds of margarines on the market today are made from non-hydrogenated oil, making them softer in texture and lower in calories, saturated fat, trans fat, and total fat. These soft margarines, which are commonly packaged in tubs and known as "soft-tub margarines," replace the hydrogenation process with small amounts of modified palm kernel and palm oil in order to make it softer and easier to spread.

Unlike margarine, butter isn't made from vegetable oil. Instead, butter is prepared from cream, contains saturated fat, and, because it's made from an animal source, also has cholesterol. Both saturated fat and cholesterol raise unhealthy cholesterol or LDL (low-density lipoprotein). Margarine is manufactured from vegetable oils, such as corn, soybean, or safflower oil, among others. Since margarine is based on plant sources, it doesn't contain cholesterol.

Because margarines don't contain cholesterol and are now made without trans fat, the American Heart Association recommends that soft margarine can be used instead of butter in recipes. Choose a margarine that contains less than two grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, no trans fat, and has liquid vegetable oil as the first ingredient.

If all this chat about fat has made you curious (or confused), check out Good vs. bad fats and "Good" and "bad" cholesterol in Alice!'s archives for more information.


What's spinning?

Dear Reader,

Spinning® (it is a registered trademark name when referred to as the exercise) is generically known as indoor, stationary cycling. Originated by Johnny G. (for Jonathan Goldberg, the Spinning guru) in 1987, these high intensity classes have sprung up all over the United States. Although gyms are calling these classes by various other names, most offer similar workouts.

An instructor leads the typically 45 - 60 minute class, usually to some sort of motivating music. Participants ride on specially designed stationary bikes and are able to control their own resistance, or level of difficulty. Some instructors take the class on an imaginary ride, describing changing scenery, such as mountains or flat roads. Other leaders encourage the class through various cycling techniques. Often the music inspires participants to work towards a high level of fitness.

These classes can be very challenging. A good instructor should be able to help beginners adapt the exercises to suit their ability. Since these bicycles are much different than outdoor ones, it takes a few classes to get the feel of them. When trying an indoor cycling class, it is recommended to:

  • Arrive early for your first class. If it's your first time, tell the instructor and have him or her help you set up the bike. You need to properly adjust the seat and handlebar heights, as well as the distance between the seat and handlebars.
  • Ask the instructor to review proper form. Avoid leaning on the handlebars — it puts too much pressure on your shoulders and wrists.
  • Bring a full bottle of cold water with you, along with a towel — you'll sweat a lot!
  • Go at your own pace — don't try to "compete" with others. Even if the instructor acts like a drill sergeant, take it easy until you are comfortable with the techniques involved. You will undoubtedly be sore after the first few classes.
  • Wear bike shorts or some sort of long shorts or knee-length leggings.
  • Have fun and enjoy, but don't overdo it — overuse training injuries can occur with this activity, as with any other form of exercise.

Happy cycling!


How soon after eating should workouts begin?

Dear Reader,

There are a few practices that can help minimize stomachaches and increase the benefits of a workout following a meal. Consider the following:

  • Breakfast of champions. It sounds cliché, but it's true: Eating a balanced breakfast is a good idea every day, and especially on workout days. If you're going to do your workout immediately after eating, a smaller breakfast is recommended. If you're getting up at the crack of dawn and can't stomach the idea of eating a meal beforehand, consider a small snack like a granola bar or an apple before you exercise.
  • Size matters. Of your meal, that is. Depending on the size of your meal, digestion can take between one and four hours. If you have consumed a larger meal, it may be better to wait longer to begin your workout. After eating a smaller meal, waiting an hour or a little less should be fine.
  • Go with your gut. Many people like to snack during a workout. This is fine as long as it makes you feel good. People vary in terms of digestion while working out, so do a little experimenting and see if this works for you.
  • Hydrate! It is a myth that drinking water before a workout causes side aches or stomach cramps. Hydration is necessary for a healthy workout and recovery. Not being fully hydrated can raise body temperature and blood pressure, and may cause muscle cramps. Hydrate before, after, and during your workout. 
  • Attention! For people with diabetes or other existing conditions, meal timing may take on additional importance. It's best to consult with a health care provider or nutritionist to discuss options and tips to keep yourself in check.
  • Post-workout? After a workout, it's likely you're body will want and need to replace some of the energy you've just burned. Research is mixed on the exact type of nutrients (carbohydrates, protein), so think healthy and satisfying (apple with peanut butter, low sugar smoothie, yogurt with a small scoop of low-fat granola).

Everyone's metabolism is slightly different. Generally, it can be trouble to ask your digestive system to compete with your muscles for blood supply and energy so eating a "buffet like meal" right before exercise can feel not-so-good. That said, a general rule of thumb is to time your meal eating so you have enough energy while exercising, but don't feel overly full or nauseous. The ultimate answer will really come from you. Let these tips be a guide and have a little fun experimenting until you find the balance that best supports your goals.

Happy exercising!


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

Medical Services (Morningside)

Student Health Services (CUMC)

Do those electronic muscle toners do squat?

Dear Reader,

The ads for electric muscle toners make them sound like the best invention since the vibrator — strap on the device and zap yourself to rock-hard abs — no effort, no sweat, and no dreaded crunches. However, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the buzz over electronic muscle toners provides more hype than real hope for those who want to strengthen and tone muscles. The FDA has approved the use of electronic muscle stimulators to prevent and/or treat some medical conditions, including:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Muscle atrophy
  • Decreased range of motion

Typically, electronic muscle toners are used as a temporary fix to help people who have had a serious injury or some underlying medical problem or condition (such as those who have had a stroke or had major surgery) rebuild or retain muscle strength and function. When used as directed by physical therapists and rehabilitation specialists, electronic muscle stimulators can help those with muscle injury recover. However, there is no evidence that these devices can sculpt and strengthen flabby, but otherwise healthy, muscles, help people lose weight or burn fat, or develop "muscles of steel."

There have also been reports of people receiving electronic shocks, burns, and skin irritation from improperly made or unregulated electronic muscle stimulators. For more information about the potential risks and benefits, you can check out the FDA's web page of Consumer Information on Electronic Muscle Stimulators.

In the meantime, if you're looking for "six-pack abs" above your belt, you'll have better results going for the slow, arduous exercise burn rather than a quick electronic zap.


Gourmet coffee talk: What's their calorie and fat content?

Dear Wacko,

If you're feeling a little wacko, or verklempt, from all the extras in today's coffee beverages and other specialty hot drinks, you're not the only one. Besides the caffeine, you may feel a lift from the added sugar; some drinks have up to twelve teaspoons worth. Everybody needs a treat or pick-me-up sometimes.  However, if you're concerned about your calorie intake, take note: these drinks often have two to three times the amount of calories and fat of a candy bar. If you add a scone or other pastry... you could be consuming over 1,000 calories in that "little" snack set.

Where are these calories coming from? Many coffee drinks — both hot and cold — typically contain whole milk, sugar, flavoring syrups, and sometimes whipped cream. The drinks you mention above contain anywhere from 250 to 600 calories — for the grande (medium) size. Make it a venti or the largest size available, and the numbers rise even more. To help consumers understand what they're drinking (and eating), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a statute that requires all chain restaurants that a) have 20 or more locations, b) offer nearly all the same food items for sale, and c) do business under the same name to list nutrition information on their menus and menu boards. As you can guess, Starbucks falls into these categories. Although other information, such as fat content, sodium, sugars, and total carbohydrates may not be visible on the menus, they are expected (per the statute) to be available in writing at the customer’s request at these establishments.  

If you're concerned about calories, your best bet when frequenting your favorite coffee bar: request skim milk or non-dairy milk (such as soy, coconut, or almond milk), rather than whole. Also, skip the whipped cream or ask for "no whip." The fluffy stuff on top adds at least 100 calories and most of its fat is the saturated kind. Instead of the flavored syrups, try the sugar-free options or try sprinkling cinnamon or vanilla flavoring (which may have some sugar, but you'll add less of it than with the syrup). For people who can't give up the sweet taste, you can add the sugar yourself (each packet contains about 16 calories), or you can use a low-calorie or non-caloric sugar substitute. Of course, if you can't bring yourself to drink the bare-bones coffee, and feel you've got to have the fully-loaded deluxe model, you can go for the smallest size... and skip the pastry. After all, the beverage really doubles as dessert.


Coach withholds water during practice — Help!

Dear Thirsty one,

Yo, what's up with your coach? We're talkin' school sports, not the Marine Corps. Perhaps your coach thinks that drinking water during practice will cause cramps and impair performance, or maybe s/he does not want to take time away from practice by having water breaks. Or, is s/he withholding water as a form of cruel and unusual punishment? Either way, withholding water from the team players is unhealthy and unethical. From your description, you and your teammates are exhibiting signs of dehydration. By the time you are thirsty, you already need fluids.

Water is vital to life for many reasons. Adult bodies are made up of about 55 to 60 percent water — children's bodies have an even higher percentage. This fluid is needed to:

  • Transport nutrients to organs and muscles
  • Carry waste products out of the body
  • Provide an environment for chemical reactions to occur
  • Act as a lubricant around joints
  • Work as a shock absorber inside the eyes and spinal cord
  • Serve as the solvent for minerals, vitamins, amino acids, glucose, and lots of other substances
  • Help regulate body temperature

In carrying out our normal body processes, we lose about 2.5 quarts of water a day. That's why we need to drink eight to ten cups (one cup = 8 ounces) of water every day. You need more if you exercise and sweat. The good news is that any non-caffeinated beverage counts, too.

To determine how much more fluid you need, follow this simple advice: weigh yourself before and directly after practice. Any difference reflects your fluid loss from sweating. For each pound you lose, you need two to three cups (16 to 24 oz.) of liquids. Even a modest two percent loss of body weight results in impaired sports performance. For a 125 lb athlete, this is as little as 2.5 pounds! A four to five percent loss in body weight (e.g., five to six pounds for a 125 lb person and six to seven pounds for a 150 lb person) can result in flushed skin, nausea, difficulty in concentrating, and an increased effort to be able to run, jump, and do just about anything physical. Once you lose more than six percent of your body weight in sweat, you risk dizziness, slurred speech, mental confusion, increased pulse rate, and other signs of heat illness. These effects are additive, meaning that dehydration can occur over time if you don't rehydrate on a daily basis.

You don't have to lose six percent of your body weight in one day. Your best strategy is to spread out your fluid intake over the course of a day. Some of this may be in the form of juice or milk. Ideally, drink two cups of water before exercise, then about two ounces every ten or fifteen minutes during exercise. Stay away from caffeinated beverages, which increase fluid loss.

Now that you're in the know, you can bring this data to your coach. If y'all are still denied the water you need and deserve, speak with your parents, teachers, athletic director, and physician about your coach's philosophy. Enlist their help in insisting that water or other sports drinks be available to you and your teammates during practice. If your coach is concerned about time, bring a bottle of water with you to practice, taking drinks during five-second breaks or whenever you have a chance.


Allergic to eggs: What else can be used when cooking?

Dear Sis,

How nice of you to cater to your relative! You'll be happy to know that there are a number of suggested substitutions for eggs. Some of them might already be in your kitchen pantry! It's good to note, however, that some substitutions have the potential to alter the texture of the final product depending on the recipe. In addition to being knowledgeable on egg-free ingredients, it's best to be also be vigilant for egg products at the grocery as well (more on that in a bit).  

Before you grab your apron, check to see how many eggs are listed in your recipe's ingredient list. It's recommended that the following substitutions only be used if the recipe requires three or fewer eggs (each is equal to one egg):

  • 1 tablespoon pureed fruit (e.g., applesauce or mashed banana)
  • 2 tablespoons of hot water mixed with 2 teaspoons (or one packet) gelatin
  • 1 tablespoon of ground flax seed mixed with 3 tablespoons warm water
  • 1 teaspoon of baking powder mixed with 1 tablespoon each of vinegar and another liquid
  • 1 teaspoon yeast dissolved in ¼ cup warm water
  • 1½ tablespoons of water mixed with 1½ tablespoons of oil and 1 teaspoon of baking powder

List adapted from and the American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology.

With a little trial and error, you might find that these substitutions make for better dishes compared to their egg-laden counterparts. If not, you might find other tasty recipes that just don’t list eggs as an ingredient at all.

In addition to substitutions, you may also want to be on the lookout at the grocery for pre-packaged food products that contain egg. The good news is that this information should be pretty easy to spot. According to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, manufacturers are required to declare whether egg (in addition to several other common food allergens) is present in the food item and clearly state it on the product’s ingredient labels.

Hopefully, whether or not your brother-in-law finds the egg-less creations you concoct to his liking, at least he knows you're thinking about his special dietary need.


Nutrition suggestions to promote recovery from surgery

Dear Columbia Alumnus,

Several nutrients are important in supporting a healthy central nervous system (CNS). Your best bet is to get these nutrients through food, as there is no evidence that taking large doses of nutritional supplements will speed your recovery. Key nutrients include:

Nutrient Action(s) Good Sources
Vitamin A Helps maintain nerve cell sheaths Fortified dairy products
Beta-carotene (which is converted to vitamin A) Helps maintain nerve cell sheaths Spinach, dark leafy green vegetables, broccoli, deep orange fruits and veggies (apricots, cantaloupe, squash, carrots, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin)
Thiamin Supports nervous system function Pork, ham, liver, whole grains, legumes (beans and peas), nuts
Niacin Also supports a healthy nervous system Milk, eggs, meat, poultry, fish, nuts, whole grain and enriched breads and cereals
Vitamin B12 Maintains the sheath that surrounds and protects nerve fibers and promotes their normal growth All animal based foods; for vegans, fortified soy milk or yeast grown in a vitamin B12 rich environment are recommended
Copper Helps form the protective covering of nerves Grains, nuts, meats, seeds, some drinking water

After surgery, eating properly can help with the recovery process. Obtaining adequate calories and protein is vital. Protein is extremely important for recuperation. Not only is it required for fighting infections, it is the backbone for repair and maintenance of many crucial tissues in the body. In addition, protein is vital for building collagen, which is necessary for scar formation.

In addition, plasma proteins, formed from dietary proteins, maintain fluid and electrolyte balance.

Other important nutrients specific to wound healing include:

Nutrient Good Sources
Vitamin C Citrus fruits, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, dark green vegetables, cantaloupe, strawberries, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, papayas, mangoes
Zinc Meat, fish, poultry, beans

A person with post-surgery complications or depleted nutrition stores needs more calories and protein than s/he did before the procedure, regardless of his or her weight. A higher caloric intake also increases the need for B-vitamins. Supplements usually are not necessary since these nutrients are found in a wide array of foods.

As there are no supplements that are recommended for enhanced recovery, get your nutrients from a well-balanced eating plan, rich in a variety of fruits, veggies, legumes, whole grains, and lean proteins, such as lean meats and low-fat dairy products. Happy healing!


Fruits and vegetables that can protect against cancer

Dear Jill,

You're right in thinking that some foods could help improve health or protect against disease. Some of these disease-fighting substances in food are vitamins and minerals, but another diverse group of plant chemicals are called phytochemicals. Phytochemicals, many of which are antioxidants, impart distinct flavors, aromas, and pigments to foods. For example, one enormous class of antioxidants, flavonoids, includes a group called allyl sulfides, which are found in garlic, onions, and shallots. It's believed that allyl sulfides may help produce a detoxification enzyme that protects against carcinogens. Other antioxidants are detectable by their colors — vividly colored fruits and veggies are rich sources of beneficial plant chemicals. For example, anthocyanins are antioxidants that lend the deep red, blue, and purple hues to raspberries, blueberries, eggplant, and red cabbage.

So how do antioxidants work? They are believed to protect cells from "free radicals," which are harmful oxygen molecules. Free radicals may cause damage to cells, possibly resulting in cancer. Smoking, air pollution, infection, and excessive sunlight can all increase production of free radicals, although they are also formed from normal bodily functions. Antioxidants may help prevent the formation of carcinogens (cancer causing substances), block the actions of carcinogens, and/or suppress cancer development. Most of these actions have yet to be proven in humans; however, foods containing antioxidants (mostly plants) contain many other healthy components.

The following table lists various classes of antioxidants and other phytochemicals, some of their rich food sources, and how they are believed to work:


Food Sources

Possible Action(s)

Vitamin C

citrus fruits, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, leafy vegetables, strawberries, potatoes

Inhibits nitrosamine formation, a potentially dangerous carcinogen


apricots, papaya, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, mangoes, carrots, pumpkin, red peppers, spinach, corn, cantaloupe

Numerous anti-cancer functions


citrus fruits

May detoxify cancer promoters


cooked tomato products, watermelon, pink grapefruit

A class of carotenoids that's protective against prostate and possibly other cancers


blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, grapes, cherries, red peppers, eggplant, red cabbage

Antioxidant cell protection; may help prevent binding of carcinogens to DNA

Allyl sulfides

garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, chives, scallions

Various anti-carcinogen functions


parsley, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, squash, eggplant, peppers, mint, basil, citrus fruits

Aid protective enzyme activity


parsley, carrots, citrus fruits, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, soybeans, berries

Block receptor sites for hormones that promote cancer


cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale

Stimulate production of enzymes that break down cancer causing agents

Phenolic acids

parsley, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, citrus fruits, whole grains, berries

Antioxidant properties; inhibit nitrosamine formation and help form protective enzymes


green tea, berries

Antioxidants linked to lower rates of gastrointestinal cancer

As you can see, a wide variety of fruits and veggies fall into one or more of the categories named above. Of note, the benefit from phytochemicals comes from eating the food, not in taking pills or supplements. Fruits and veggies contain a variety of phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals, as well as fiber — these cannot be replicated in a pill form. In addition, excessive amounts of certain vitamins or other compounds found in some supplements have the potential to cause harm.

To optimize your antioxidant intake, you can include at least five servings of fruits and veggies a day. If you're already doing this, why not aim for even more? Researchers have found that five to nine servings per day are most beneficial. Set your sights on variety, too. To obtain the benefits of these plant compounds, try to vary your selections from day to day, and from week to week. Include red, yellow, green, orange, blue, purple, brown, and white fruits and veggies, and enjoy a colorful (and healthful) eating plan!


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. Good work keeping yourself informed before you ingest!


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