Nutrition & Physical Activity

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Ginkgo biloba and physiological impotence?

Dear Reader,

Some people swear by Ginkgo biloba, calling it a miracle herb with the power to fix anything from Alzheimer's to erectile dysfunction. But what are the facts? Scientifically speaking the data is less clear.

According to available research, Ginkgo has been used effectively to improve cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, as well as to improve memory in healthy adults and to treat peripheral vascular disease. Though it shows some potential with sexual dysfunction, the results have been mixed. In fact, Ginkgo’s effectiveness appears to be limited to relieving sexual dysfunction that is caused by selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) anti-depressants and not more generalized physiological causes. Some of ginkgo’s success with treating sexual dysfunction is believed to be the result of the placebo effect.

Though ginkgo is considered safe, there are some side effects such as headache, nausea, upset stomach, vomiting, and irritations around the mouth. Because of ginkgo’s ability to thin the blood, experts advise that you not take ginkgo if you are currently taking medication for diabetes, aspirin, ibuprofen or anticoagulant drugs such as heparin and warfarin. Doctors also advise caution to patients with bleeding disorders or those who are taking drugs, herbs (such as garlic, ginseng and red clover), or supplements that may increase the risk of bleeding.

Ginko biloba is usually sold as an extract because many of the plants parts, including its seeds, are considered poisonous and their consumption could lead to seizures and death. You may want to avoid these altogether.

Overall, Ginkgo could work for you either through the placebo effect or because of actual biochemical interactions — it just might not be your best bet. If you are interested in help with impotence you may want to speak with a health care provider. S/he can help you determine possible causes, the best treatment options, as well as answer any other questions you may have about Ginkgo biloba and its effects. Columbia students on the Morningside campus can make an appointment with Medical Services using Open Communicator or by calling 212-854-2284. Columbia students at the Medical Center can make an appointment with Student Health by calling 212-305-3400.

Alice

Wants to build muscle mass through weight lifting and a healthy diet

Dear Reader,

A healthy, varied diet of nutritious foods along with an appropriate exercise program can help get your bod in buff condition; however, remember that women in general do not bulk up to the same degree as many men do when they work out to increase muscle mass.

The road to muscle mass must begin with a sound weight training program. A program of lifting every other day, or doing a lower body workout one day and an upper body workout the other day, is recommended. The minimum frequency is two times a week. Remember, never work the same muscle group two days in a row. Your muscles need 24 to 48 hours of recovery time before the next life. In lifting weights to build muscle mass and strength, research supports three sets of 8 to12 repetitions max. (This means you can't lift the 13th time.) If you are a beginner, begin at a weight that you can lift 15 times before feeling fatigue, and gradually increase the weight and decrease the repetitions as the weeks go by. For more information on weight lifting, read Weight training: Do I need to change my workout to see results? and Weightlifting and still fat.

Adding aerobic activity to your weight lifting workouts will help reduce body fat stores. An aerobic workout of 30 to 60 minutes most days of the week is your target. Of course, you can build up to that ideal over time. For more information on aerobic exercise, read  Minimum and maximum heart rate and aerobic exercise.

Search through Go Ask Alice!'s Nutrition & Physical Activity archive for questions and answers that describe how to eat a healthy diet; in particular, read Food Guidelines — How much is a serving?. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also has information on what types of foods might help support healthy muscle mass, like complex carbohydrates and foods with healthy fats.

Good luck on your road to more muscle mass!

Alice

Better to drink warm rather than cold water?

Dear J,

Staying well-hydrated is extremely important for an active athlete. It's great that you want to make staying hydrated as easy and healthy for your body as possible. In this case though, you're in luck — health and preference coincide!

In a happy coincidence of what feels good and what's good for you, it's actually cold water that's recommended when exercising vigorously. During intense physical activity, the body's core temperature rises above the normal 98.6°F (37°C). Drinking cool water lowers the body's temperature and helps it settle back to its normal range. Studies have also shown that cold water 41°F (5°C) is absorbed more quickly from the stomach than warm, abating dehydration and allowing you to play harder and enjoy your game of soccer even more. Sweating also helps to lower the body's temperature, but through sweating we lose a lot of water, so it's important to keep drinking.

The body is smart and often craves what it needs. That doesn't mean you should have an ice cream sundae every time you get a hankering, but in this case, cold water is what you want and cold water is what your body uses best. That said, if the only water around is warm, or if some prefer it warm, that's ok too. The main point is — listen to your body, stay hydrated, and have fun!

Alice

To supplement or not to supplement my diet

Dear Supplementally Confused,

It may depend on the type of dietary supplement. Supplements range from daily multi-vitamins and minerals to anabolic steroids. Certain supplements are recommended for various conditions. For example, calcium supplements are often encouraged to help prevent osteoporosis, and iron is recommended for those who are anemic. Pregnant women's increased nutritional needs may require that they supplement with vitamins and minerals. The performance enhancing supplements that are so widely advertised today (i.e., creatine, chromium picolinate, protein shakes, amino acids) are not needed by the average person.

The best way to get all of the nutrients your body needs is to eat a healthy diet. To do this, you should eat a variety of foods, have a good balance within the food groups (read Food Guidelines — How much is a serving?  for details), eat enough calories (at least 1200), and make nutrient-dense choices, such as whole wheat bread and skim milk as opposed to white bread and whole milk.

Although vitamin and mineral supplements serve an important purpose for some people, you cannot depend on pills alone to provide your body with the nutrients it needs. Pills do not have phytochemicals, the non-nutrient compounds found in plant-derived foods that have biological activity in the body. Approximately 150 phytochemicals are found in foods along with the vitamins and minerals the body needs. Phytochemicals play a very important role in helping the body defend itself against cancer and cancer-causing agents, and probably many other things as well. An example of a known phytochemical is beta-carotene, a carotenoid. It is found in deeply pigmented fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, broccoli, cantaloupe, pumpkin, and apricots. Carotenoids act as antioxidants, reducing the risk of cancer. Read Antioxidants for more info.

So the best bet is to do what you were told as a child and, "eat your fruits and veggies!" Five servings a day is a great start. If you do supplement, be careful not to overdose. More of a "good" thing is not necessarily good for you. Besides being expensive, over-supplementing can be harmful to you. For more information, read What's the difference between vitamins and minerals? from the Go Ask Alice! Nutrition & Physical Activity archives.

Alice

Gym manners

Dear Reader,

Working out the details of health club etiquette may cause some to break a sweat. Following some simple guidelines should set the pace for everyone to have an enjoyable gym experience and still gain the fabulous health benefits that come with exercising!

Starting in the locker room:

  • Exercise control when loading and unloading your gym bag and locker. Remember, you are in a locker room, not at a picnic, so refrain from spreading your towels, clothes, shoes, and toiletries all over the benches and floor around you.
  • In the name of prevention, apply some extra deodorant before your workout begins. Even the freshest-smelling folks can have others reaching for their gas masks during a vigorous workout.
  • Before hitting the gym floor, wash your hands, and, yes, wipe off some of that cologne/perfume.

Moving on to your workout:

  • Do you have an extra towel with you? Wipe off aerobic equipment, free weights, weight machines, and mats after you use them — even if you don't sweat. Some gyms have disinfectant wipes for this purpose.
  • If you're a multi-set kinda gal or guy, glance around to see if someone else is waiting to use the machine or area you currently occupy. Offer to let them work in (alternate) with you, and if you're feeling particularly generous, ask if they'd like you to "spot" them.
  • Obey posted time limits on equipment to avoid long waits during high traffic times.
  • If you are waiting for equipment currently in use, don't hover! Give your fellow exerciser some space to move and breathe — you'd probably appreciate that same courtesy.
  • Put free-weights back in their proper place after you use them. Who wants to clean up after others or search high and low for equipment scattered far and wide?
  • Allow other people to focus. Distracting other gymrats with loud grunts, sing-a-longs with one's music, chatting on your cell phone, and social hours with friends and neighbors should be avoided.
  • Gyms and health clubs may be great places to meet that special someone. But if an object of your desire doesn't return your winks and smiles, take a hint: they are probably there to work out, not to hook up.
  • Finally, timeliness to classes, racquetball games, and training sessions not only gives you more exercise time, but also reduces back-ups and waiting time — helping the whole place run like a well-oiled stairclimber.

Often times, health clubs post their own set of rules or etiquette. If you are uncertain about your gym's specific policies or have concerns about fellow member's behavior, you may want to speak with the desk staff or management. You'll also get a good sense of things simply by observing the patterns of most fellow gym-goers. In the end, it's often about respect in a shared environment.

Here's to a good workout... and many more!

Alice

One cannot live on water alone

Dear Reader,

How much did you bet? It's time for your co-worker to pay up!

The human body can survive a surprisingly long time on water alone, but it is nowhere near six months. When the body is deprived of new fuel (i.e., food), it breaks into its energy reserves to keep going. The body stores energy in the form of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.

After one day without food, the body will have used up its carbohydrates, which are stored as glycogen in liver and muscle cells. After that, it's on to the fat reserves. Your average Joe/Jane, weight-wise, has enough fat reserves to live for four to six weeks without food. After that, the body begins to use its protein reserves (basically, the body itself). Body proteins are used up at a much faster rate than fat, and you could really only get another two to three weeks out of protein. At that point, however, you can't really call it living since so much irreparable damage has been done to the body, including the brain.

Bottom line: an average person could live for about eight weeks on water alone, give or take about a week for an over- or underweight person, respectively.

Alice

Is juice as good as whole fruit?

Dear Joyful Juicer,

Juicers can be a great low calorie, high nutrient, tasty treat. However, they don’t generally carry all the benefits of eating the original fruit or veggie from whence it came.

If you've made juice, you know that it takes a lot of fruit to make a container of juice. Usually, juicers extract the juice and some pulp from fruits and/or vegetables. You’ll get all of the vitamins, minerals, beneficial plant chemicals (phytochemicals), and carbohydrates in juice that's extracted from a whole fruit. However, you won’t get much of the fiber, and depending on the fruit, you may not get any of it.

Fiber aids in the digestive process. It acts sort of like a scrub brush for your intestines and speeds up the movement of waste through your system. It also can fill you up, and may help protect against certain cancers. Fiber in fruit is found in the membranes between sections, the white part around the outside (as in oranges and grapefruits), the seeds, the skin, and the peels. For example, orange juice contains no fiber (even if it has pulp) because the fiber is found in the membrane, which is lost during the process of juicing.

It is also important to remember that juice is not a low calorie drink. An eight ounce glass of orange juice contains 110 calories — the equivalent of two oranges (each contains about 60 calories). But you won't feel as filled up from juice since it doesn't contain any fiber. For many people, drinking a caloric beverage, such as juice, isn't as satisfying as eating the same amount of calories in food. For those who need to increase caloric intake — such as athletes, children, or teens — juice is a great choice.

Fresh juice is certainly tasty and an excellent source of many nutrients. Less stable vitamins, such as vitamin C, are not compromised in fresh juice as they may be in some processed varieties. Also, watch for added sugar in many processed juices that can increase caloric content.

In general, juice is just fine. But if fiber’s what you’re after, go for the whole fruit or veggie over the liquefied form. Happy juicing!

Alice

Antioxidants

Dear Reader,

Before discussing their role in maintaining good health, let's first clarify what antioxidants are. "Antioxidant" is the collective name for the vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, and polyphenols that protect the body from harmful free radicals. The most well known antioxidants include the vitamins A (found in liver, dairy, and fish), C (found in bell peppers and citrus fruits), E (found in oils, fortified cereals, seeds, and nuts), and the mineral selenium (found in Brazil nuts, meats, tuna, and plant foods). The carotenoids beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene also have high antioxidant activity and are responsible for adding color to many fruits and vegetables. Carrots and pumpkins wouldn't be orange without beta-carotene, for example. Lutein, also important in eyesight, is abundant in leafy green vegetables. Lycopene is present in red fruits and vegetables, most notably in tomatoes. No wonder why many experts stress the importance of eating a "colorful" diet!

So why are they called antioxidants? The name is indicative of the mechanism by which they help prevent disease. In humans, a small but significant percentage of oxygen molecules in the body will become electrically charged due to natural cellular activity and/or exposure to environmental factors such as tobacco smoke and radiation. The oxygen molecule becomes a "free radical" as it undergoes this process of oxidation. Free radicals are highly reactive as they try to steal electrons from other molecules, including DNA and cellular membranes. They will continue to react with other cellular molecules in a chain-reaction mechanism. This chain reaction of free radicals can damage cells, which may play a role in the development of certain conditions like heart disease and cancer. Antioxidants, however, stop the chain-reaction by giving up electrons and neutralizing free radicals so that they cannot induce any more oxidative damage. Unlike other molecules, antioxidants do not become reactive when they lose an electron.

Many studies have shown the link between free radicals and a number of degenerative diseases associated with aging. Thus, it is possible that antioxidants can be beneficial in reducing the incidence of cancer, cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's disease, immune dysfunction, cataracts, stroke, and macular degeneration.

Read any fitness magazine, watch a few television ads, or simply pass by your local health food store, and notice the benefits of the latest supplement being touted. While new products emerge frequently, it is best to remember that vitamin and mineral supplements are not to be used as substitutes for a healthy, well-balanced diet. In fact, due to many conflicting studies on the effects of antioxidant supplements, the American Heart Association does not currently recommend using antioxidant vitamin supplements. It is also important to note that we can "over-supplement" our bodies, taking much more than the recommended daily value of certain vitamins and minerals. Vitamins A and E are fat soluble, meaning that excess amounts are stored in the liver and fatty tissues, instead of being quickly excreted, creating a risk of toxicity. Your best bet is to eat a diet rich in fruits, veggies, and whole grains. 

For information on cancer, heart disease, and antioxidants (as well as on healthy diets, vitamins and minerals, etc.), you can visit the the National Cancer Institute website. Additional resources on supplements are provided by the National Institute of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements.

Remember, a balanced diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables can provide you with immediate health and energy benefits and help fight the effects of aging for years to come. Happy antioxidizing!   

Alice

"Good" and "bad" cholesterol

Dear Reader,

Cholesterol is a necessary component for living cells. However, high levels of blood cholesterol are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. To complicate matters even more, blood cholesterol can be divided into two types, one of which actually lowers the risk of heart disease! To get the story on cholesterol straight, it's necessary to understand something about how cholesterol works in the body and how it can contribute to heart disease.

Most of the cholesterol in the body is produced by the liver. A significantly smaller amount comes from dietary sources, such as meat, eggs, and dairy products. Cholesterol travels throughout the body via the blood stream, being absorbed by cells along the way to be used for important processes, such as hormone production and cell membrane repair. Because it isn't water soluble, cholesterol is ferried along the bloodstream encased in protein. These cholesterol-filled protein orbs are called lipoproteins. Lipoproteins come in a variety of sizes that behave differently from one another. Broadly, health care providers and scientists talk about low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).

The role of both types of cholesterol in heart disease centers around the formation of arterial plaques — fatty, filmy deposits on arterial walls. Over time, plaques become hardened, leading to narrow, rigid arteries that impede blood flow and thereby increase the risk of heart attack. Also, smaller plaques sometimes develop blood clots on their surface, which can then detach and go on to block arteries downstream, potentially leading to heart attack. Although the biochemistry involved isn't simple, the take home message is that LDL contributes to the formation of plaques on the artery walls, while HDL helps prevent their formation. Accordingly, LDL is often called "bad" cholesterol while HDL is called "good" cholesterol. (These terms apply only to blood cholesterol; dietary cholesterol is neither good nor bad in this sense.)

For more information on cholesterol and heart disease, read the Related Q&As listed below.

Alice

Bananas = fat?

Dear Banana Lover,

Nutritionally, bananas are packed with many good things. To get right to your question, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), one medium banana contains only 0.39 grams of fat. Compare that to a California avocado that has 21 grams of fat (with 3 grams of saturated fat). Like protein and carbohydrates, fat is an important macronutrient that plays a vital role in maintaining health. So while you don’t have to eschew avocados and olives, you can rest assured that eating a banana will provide some low-fat satisfaction in a balanced diet.

Bananas make a healthy and helpful snack choice for endurance athletes (and others) because they have higher carbohydrate content when compared to other fruits (by weight). They also provide a good source of potassium, which is vital for controlling the body's fluid balance, and regulating one's heartbeat and blood pressure, and preventing muscle cramping.

Think of it this way, if a contest called for designing an ideal food, you might just come up with a banana. They are neat (they come in their own wrapper!), they ripen best after harvest, they can be eaten at various stages of ripeness, there is a good supply all year, they tend to be inexpensive, and almost everyone can digest them. Chew on this, in an average year Americans consume about 25 pounds of bananas per person.

Perhaps you can help spread the word that people should just enjoy having their bananas and eating them, too!

Alice

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