Nutrition & Physical Activity

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Gaming for exercise?

Dear Gaming for Exercise,

Using exercise video games, or “exergaming,” has become popular with many seeking to increase their physical activity in a fun and interactive way. While exergaming might not be as good as the “real thing,” it certainly isn’t bad for you. The bonus is that there is no credible evidence indicating that exergames are harmful or unsafe. So, if you find it difficult to motivate yourself to do traditional forms of physical activity, video games that involve exercise are an excellent alternative to being a couch potato.

Some exergames are better than others at encouraging aerobic activity and increasing motivation. There are many types and brands of exergames including those that are console based as well as those which use portable hand held devices. Some smart phones even allow you to download exergames giving them an added level of convenience. Exergame platforms offer a wide range of activities from team sports to yoga, and even dance.

Research has shown that, if you exergame at moderate or high intensity, you can indeed improve your fitness. The most effective exergames were found to be the ones that combine strenuous physical activity with entertaining gameplay as opposed to playing a video game simply for the fun aspect of it without emphasizing the physical activity component.

It’s fairly straightforward: For some, exergaming can be more fun than working out. So, if you don’t like to work out and find an active game that you like, this a better alternative to passively sitting on the couch playing traditional video games or watching TV! However, if you partake in exergaming, make sure to take breaks of at least five to ten minutes every hour or so to walk around and stretch. If able, stretch your lower back by standing up and pulling each knee to your chest, holding that position for a few seconds. 

While exergames aren’t exactly a substitute for other forms of exercise, they’re worth considering if you want to find ways to be more active. If you are a student at Columbia, make sure to check out CU Move, an initiative that offers the University community various opportunities to learn about and engage in physical activities that support healthy living. If you are planning on a rigorous physical activity regiment, it is always recommended that you speak with a healthcare provider. In addition to determining your health and fitness, s/he can provide you with more detailed information about developing a safer and more effective exercise program for your specific needs. Columbia students on the Morningside campus can make an appointment with Medical Services using Open Communicator. You may also want to consider an on-campus personal trainer at Dodge Fitness Center. Columbia students at the Medical Center can make an appointment with Student Health or the Center for Student Wellness.

Game on!

Alice

One fish, too much fish, how much fish?

Dear Reader,

This is a simple question for which there is no simple answer! How often you should eat fish depends on a variety of factors, including your specific health concerns, the type of fish you like to eat, how much you weigh, whether you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, and how much fish you eat per sitting. In addition to being quite tasty, fish can have many nutritional benefits, including being low in cholesterol, a good source of protein, and chock full of Omega-3 fatty acids. The American Heart Association even recommends eating a variety of fish, preferably oily fish (e.g., salmon, tuna, herring, etc.), at least twice a week.

Most people can eat fish without being concerned, but pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children should be more careful. Nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of methylmercury, a type of mercury that can be harmful for pregnant women and young children. Mercury is present in both freshwater and oceans throughout the world as a result of industrial pollution. Generally speaking, older fish, larger fish, and fish that eat other fish will have accumulated the most mercury, thus there is lots of variation in mercury levels. There are three primary factors to monitor if you are trying to lower your consumption of mercury. These include the type of fish, the frequency you eat it, and the amount you eat per meal.

Some good general guidelines for fish consumption:

  • Eat fish that are lower in mercury. These include anchovies, clams, oysters, herring, tilapia, whiting, shrimp, sardines, salmon (in some cases), and a few others.
  • Eat less fish that are higher in mercury. These include tuna (especially steaks and sushi), Chilean Sea Bass, sharks, swordfish, eel, halibut, and orange roughy.
  • Eat a variety of fish. As an alternative to completely cutting high mercury fish out of your diet, simply eating a variety will make it more likely that some of the fish you consume is of the lower mercury variety.
  • Eat smaller (or fewer) servings of fish. Eating fish less frequently and eating smaller amounts will help keep mercury levels in check.

To get a more precise calculation of how often you should eat fish, check out the National Resources Defense Council's Mercury Contamination in Fish - Consumer Guide to Mercury in Fish. Other helpful resources include the New York City Department of Health – Mercury and Fish, the Environmental Protection Agency, and New Yorkers can check out New York State Fish Advisories.

If you are still concerned about the amount of fish you should include in your diet and if there are any restrictions based upon your individual health needs, you should make an appointment with your primary care provider or a registered dietitian to discuss. Columbia students on the Morningside campus can make an appointment at Medical Services using Open Communicator or by calling 212-854-2284. Columbia students at the Medical Center can make an appointment with Student Health or by calling 212-305-3400. 

Bon appétit!

Alice

Fruits and veggies on a budget. How do I avoid waste?

Dear Berry Healthy,

Eating healthily on a budget, when you can only get to the grocery store once a week, can be tricky. But fruits and veggies don’t have to break the bank or spoil on the shelf before you can take advantage of their nutrients! There’s a combination of strategies that can help. Buying fruits and vegetables that are low cost and nutritious combined with smart shopping habits, strategic meal planning, and effective storage can prevent waste. Here are some tips on how to more easily incorporate the good stuff into your diet and budget…

Before you go to the store:

  • Consider your options for shopping since a larger grocery store may have more options and lower costs than a nearby convenience store
  • Use coupons and monitor ads for what’s on sale
  • Know what’s in season to ensure freshness
  • Have a snack since it’s easier to stick to a budget at the grocery store on a full stomach

At the store:

  • Look for things that are on sale and buy in bulk to cut prices
  • Don’t buy single servings or pre-cut product, as this can cost much more than whole fruits and vegetables
  • Try hardy fruits like apples, bananas, pears, nectarines, and watermelon
  • Look for lasting vegetables like carrots, spinach, broccoli, collards, mustard greens, kale, potatoes, cabbage, and onions
  • Try frozen, especially for berries
  • Canned fruits and vegetables will last a long time, but choose those with no added salt or sugar

At home: 

  • Plan your meals to use up your purchases in a given week
  • Cook enough for multiple meals and freeze the leftovers
  • Fruit that is about to turn or purchased in bulk can be cut and frozen for smoothies or baking
  • Veggies on the way out can be frozen or made into soup
  • Store produce appropriately

List adapted from 30 Ways in 30 Days to Stretch Your Fruit & Vegetable Budget from the CDC.

This last point on prolonging the shelf life of produce varies wildly from item to item. Some veggies like to be damp (such as broccoli, dark leafy greens, and carrots), while others don’t like to get wet (onions). Some prefer the fridge (spinach), while others just need a cool, dry place (potatoes, winter squash). Remove or loosen any bands or twist ties from greens to let them breathe, and remove greens from items like turnips, radishes, and beets, as they draw moisture from the roots. Most fruits do well in a cool place on the counter, and shouldn’t be washed until you’re going to eat them, as added moisture encourages mold. You can ask your local grocer or take a look at how produce are presented in the store to get an idea of how produce like their environment. You can also check out Get Balanced! resources for additional information.

Hope these tips gave you some berry good ideas!

Alice

March 13, 2014

554640
I will also cut up and freeze and fruit that is going bad, so I can use it in smoothies or baking later. Same would work for vegetables. I also have a dehydrator which I much prefer to freezing goods...
I will also cut up and freeze and fruit that is going bad, so I can use it in smoothies or baking later. Same would work for vegetables. I also have a dehydrator which I much prefer to freezing goods - could be an investment. :)

April 16, 2013

527375
Try making a smoothie with the ripe fruits!
Try making a smoothie with the ripe fruits!

Sugar-free gum — Is it bad for me?

Dear Reader,

Humans have been chewing on natural materials for many, many years. Whether it was chewing on leaves, grains, waxes, or various types of sweet grasses, one thing is clear — humans sure do love to masticate. So, chew on this: In general, chewing sugar-free gum presents many more health benefits than health risks. The risks associated with the “chemicals” (i.e., artificial sweeteners) that are added to many sugar-free gums are minimal, at best. There just isn’t conclusive evidence to suggest that artificial sweeteners like aspartame are unsafe. Now, frequent gum-chewers who prefer their gum with sugar might run into trouble as sugared gums have been associated with higher rates of tooth decay and damage.

What, you say? You would like more on which to chew? Okay, here you go: Chewing gum is a great way to exercise the jaw and neck, prevent clenching your teeth, and keep your mouth occupied without consuming excessive amounts of food. Additionally, sugar-free gum can help you beat cravings for unhealthy sugary foods and beverages. Chewing sugar-free gum after eating is particularly effective because it boosts saliva production and flow, which helps to wash away digestive acids and food particles from the teeth. Additionally, sugar-free gum chewers benefit from fewer cavities, better breath, increased enamel mineralization, and less gingivitis, tooth staining, and dry mouth. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that the American Dental Association actively promotes sugar-free gum chewing because it is safe for oral tissues and actually improves oral health. Indeed, the University of York Health Economics Consortium found that if every member of the British population chewed sugar-free gum, the National Health Service would spend £100 million less on restorative dental care every year. Please keep in mind that chewing sugar-free gum should not be considered a substitute for consistent and thorough brushing and flossing. Nothing can replace those healthy habits.

Excessive sugar-free gum chewing (or any gum chewing for that matter) does present certain risks. Chewing gum with too much force can lead to temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD), a painful condition that affects the jaw, face, neck, and back. Additionally, chewing gum in various social environments such as the classroom or workplace can be distracting or irritating to others. Also, a significant amount of litter is attributed to chewing gum (both sugar-free and sugared) — something you are more than aware of if you’ve ever peeked underneath a table in a public space (or had a restaurant job where you had to scrape the stuff off).

There’s been some interesting research done on chewing gum, stress and health. In one study, researchers found that chewing gum (compared to not chewing gum) was associated with less consumption of alcohol, lower levels of work-related stress, higher levels of alertness, lower levels of depression, and lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It’s also interesting to note that the folks who chewed gum were more likely to be smokers when compared to their non-chewing counterparts. An oral fixation, perhaps?  

So, rest assured, dear reader, chewing sugar-free gum has many more health benefits than it does health risks (unless you are a really loud chewer and, in that case, you may lose a few friends, something that can prove detrimental to your health). Happy chewing!

Alice

January 28, 2013

522603
The one major bad thing about anything sugar free is the aspartame. Thousands, if not millions, of people are allergic to it but so many people dismiss that this could be a real allergy. I am one of...
The one major bad thing about anything sugar free is the aspartame. Thousands, if not millions, of people are allergic to it but so many people dismiss that this could be a real allergy. I am one of those that do have this allergy and my life has been so much better from removing it from my diet. Specialty stores online and paces such as Trader Joes have gum that is sugar free but also aspartame free and I would strongly suggest that for people to chew instead. Please consider letting people know this information. Thank you

Rhinoplasty

Dear What’s in a nose,

Nose surgery, or a “nose job”, is one of the most commonly performed procedures worldwide. Some people need nose surgery to improve their breathing or for reconstruction after an injury or skin cancer, while others want to smooth a bump or change the shape of their nose for cosmetic purposes. And some, like you, consider it for reasons related to both form and function.

The septum is the wall in the nose that separates the two nasal cavities. A deviated septum is when the septum is displaced or otherwise inappropriately constructed, leading to symptoms like you mention such as difficulty breathing, as well as snoring, pain, nose bleeds, and difficulty smelling. Septoplasty is surgery that realigns the septum without any cosmetic alterations to the nose. Rhinoplasty is surgery that involves reconstructing or correcting nasal and septum pathways, as well as aesthetically altering the patient’s appearance by reshaping the nose. There is also something known as a nonsurgical nose job, which refers to an approach of using injectable fillers to alter the nose’s appearance. While this can be an option for subtle exterior irregularities, nonsurgical procedures do not address internal structural issues like a deviated septum.  

Rhinoplasty can either be performed “open” or “closed” (endonasally). In open rhinoplasty the surgeon cuts the fleshy bit that separates the patient’s nostrils. In closed rhinoplasty there is no exterior cutting, with all surgical work done inside a patient’s nose. Closed rhinoplasty is considered a more difficult procedure, but has a shorter recovery and faster operating time. Open rhinoplasty requires less experience, but has a longer recovery, slower operating time, and risks external scarring.

Every surgery has its risks. Before nose surgery, patients are screened to alleviate the risk for complications. A surgeon will look for risk factors such as a history of respiratory issues, drug use, smoking, medications that thin blood, and predispositions to nasal infection. The most common complication during nose surgery is bleeding, which, except in rare cases, is easily addressed. Infection is also considered rare, but patients are given antibiotics intravenously to help with this risk prior to surgery. Other potential negative effects include blocked nasal airflow (commonly goes away after two to three weeks) or deformities that subsist for more than a year.

Both septoplasty and rhinoplasty can be performed under local or general anesthesia, depending on the exact procedure and the patient’s preference. General anesthesia can be administered either through an orally inserted tube (this method also helps reduce how much blood the patient swallows) or intravenously. Though anesthesia can be dangerous, cases of mortality from its use are rare and predominantly (>50%) involve young children (0-3 years). Cardiac arrest and respiratory system failure are possible complications from anesthesia. Out of roughly 1,000,000 patients given anesthesia over four years, less than 300 cases of cardiac arrest were reported with less than 75 of those resulting in a fatality. Things that increase the risk of anesthesia complications are youth (particularly 0-3 years), eating before surgery (at least eight hours of fasting is required), or being in a rushed/emergency situation.

In deciding between the different procedures, it might be of interest to know what patient’s say about their quality of life after having one done. A survey found that 85% of septoplasty patients with impaired nasal functions (mainly breathing related) report being satisfied with their procedure and found an average increase in a nose health/functionality performance scale from 23/100 to 67/100 following the procedure. Only 40% of rhinoplasty patients reported improved nasal airflow, though this is because many rhinoplasty operations are performed solely for cosmetic purposes. In terms of post-operation nasal appearance and function, 90% of rhinoplasty patients reported feeling satisfied.

If you decide to opt for rhinoplasty, look for a surgeon with experience in plastic surgery of the nose who has a good reputation of patient satisfaction and has before and after photos of their work available. The American Board of Plastic Surgery (ABPS) is the most common body that certifies rhinoplasty surgeons. Rhinoplasty can be a costly procedure, so you may want to call individual surgeons in your area to see what they charge. Insurance may cover surgery for a deviated septum though it usually does not cover purely cosmetic rhinoplasty, so be sure to check your policy before making an appointment.

It is unlikely that either procedure will affect your voice or singing abilities, but be sure to talk with any potential surgeon to determine your own risk depending on what will be done during your surgery. Bandages usually come off from surgery in less than a week. Depending on the extent of the procedure, the healing process can take many months to see final results once swelling and numbness subside.

While you consider a septoplasty or a rhinoplasty, it may be helpful to ask yourself when you began to consider your nose to be an issue. It sounds like your ex-boyfriend’s joking about your nose got a little under your skin. Is this the first time that you remember thinking about your nose this way or have you always felt this way? Has anyone else ever said anything about your nose to make you self-conscious? Because there is a chance that you might be unhappy with the results of a rhinoplasty, it may help to think about if you’re ready for a permanent change to your appearance. Check out some of the Related Q&As below on corrective surgery, surgery for cosmetic reasons, and body image that might address more factors to consider when deciding whether or not to get a procedure done.

After some reflection you might decide to embrace your unique look and opt only to address the breathing concerns associated with your septum. At the end of the day, and as you noted, this decision is really for you and you alone. Whatever option you end up choosing, hopefully you’ll be breathing easier soon!

Alice

January 3, 2013

521054
I'm 21 and I did it about 3 months ago, I'm happier than ever! You won't regret it.
I'm 21 and I did it about 3 months ago, I'm happier than ever! You won't regret it.

History of bad sit-up form...What should I do?

Dear Reader,

The truth is you might have been at risk of for straining your back muscles even if you had been doing sit-ups properly. Experts consider the sit-up to be an exercise that has only limited effectiveness in strengthening your core muscles (the muscles that make up your side, abdomen, and back). Fortunately, there are alternatives to sit-ups that are considered safe and effective for maintaining core muscle health and for building abdominal muscle.

As you mention, sit-ups have the potential to lead to back pain. Sit-ups are known to place significant strain on the spinal column, which can result in back problems. In addition to working abdominal muscles, sit-ups work the hip flexors, which attach the lower back to the spine. Overworking the hip flexors can cause back pain when the muscle pulls on the spine. Doing sit-ups on the ground can further strain the lower back because it gets pushed into the ground as you exercise. If sit-ups are performed with arms around the head, you may pull up on the neck and risk injury. Because sit-ups focus exclusively on building a single core muscle (the transverse abdominis) they also risk destabilizing the spine, which relies on a balance of all the muscles of the core to function properly. Thus, experts suggest that core exercise regiments include a balance of exercises designed to strengthen the major muscles of the side, abdomen and back.

The following strength training exercises can work the entire core without leading to the back pain associated with sit-ups:

  • Consider plank exercises. In this exercise, the body is held up by the arms. Start by lying flat on your stomach. Then, press your body up using your forearms. Stay in this position for 30-60 seconds. You can also do a side plank which focuses more on the oblique muscles. For this exercise, start by lying on your side and then pressing your body up with the forearem closest to the floor. Hang out there for a while — you’ll start to feel the burn.
  • The “bird dog” is also a great core-strengthening exercise. Start on all fours and raise your left arm and right leg and then alternate to raising your right arm and left leg.
  • Pilates. This is actually a group of exercises which place special emphasis on developing a strong core. You can look into taking a Pilates course with a trained instructor; there are also a variety of books and videos available that teach proper Pilates technique.

Instead of doing sit-ups, you could also try crunches. To do a proper crunch, lie on your back, bend one knee, and then gently lift your head and shoulders pausing for a moment; then, lie back down. When doing crunches make sure to place your hands below your lower back in order to give it support. Additionally, avoid hollowing out your stomach or pressing your back against the floor during this exercise. Still, if you opt to continue doing sit-ups, make sure to utilize the proper sit-up technique. This will help reduce your risk of injury and maximize overall effectiveness. When doing sit-ups you may also want to consider using an exercise or stability ball, like the one you mentioned, because it will limit the strain placed on the lower back when sit-ups are done on the ground.

If you are experiencing chronic back pain you may want to consider getting checked out by your healthcare provider. Columbia students on the Morningside campus can make an appointment with Medical Services by logging-in to Open Communicator. Morningside students can also look into the option of a personal trainer at Columbia’s Dodge Fitness Center.  Columbia students at the Medical Center can make an appointment with Student Health.

Alice

Toning shoes — Good or goofy?

Dear Trying to be Toned,

Think it’s time to cancel your gym membership and invest in a pair of toning shoes instead? Not so fast. The current evidence on toning shoes is controversial. Manufacturers claim that lacing up can help people lose weight and tone buttocks, legs, and abdominal muscles.  It turns out that the claims surrounding such products don’t have a leg to stand on.

Since they first arrived on the scene, toning shoes have become very popular and are manufactured by many different brands. Athletic shoes are often designed with support and cushioning in mind, whereas toning shoes are engineered specifically to create instability. The idea is that this instability forces the wearer to engage stabilizing muscles further than regular athletic shoes, which results in greater toning of the buttocks, legs, and abdominal muscles.

Some researchers have found that no increase in calorie expenditure or muscle toning results from wearing the shoes. There is even concern that wearing the shoes might alter the gait of their users and could lead to an increased risk of leg and ankle injuries. Companies that produce toning shoes, however, cite research and testing that they have commissioned to back up their claims. Companies also recommend wearing toning shoes for short periods of time for non-vigorous activities.

In 2012, the nation’s consumer protection agency, the Federal Trade Commission, forced several companies to reimburse consumers for making implausible claims. The lawsuits that were filed against some makers of the toning shoes claimed the shoes did not fulfill their promises or caused injury. While these companies have toned down their claims, toning shoes are still on the market. If you’re looking for a way to tone up, toning shoes probably won’t help you be more physically fit than any other shoe. But if you think a brand new pair of kicks will encourage you to walk or become more physically active, whether they are toning shoes or not, it’s a good first step. If you decide to go the toning shoe route, however, take care to be mindful of injury (you may even want to consult with your health care provider before making a purchase).  

If you are looking for more opportunities to be physically active in your new kicks and you are affiliated with Columbia, CU Move is an initiative that offers the University community opportunities to learn about and engage in physical activities that support healthy living.

Keep trying, Trying to be Toned!

Alice

Forgetting to eat

Dear Really, I’m Not Hungry,

On the one hand, your body knows best. That is, taking cues and signals from your body about when to eat (and when to stop eating) is a surefire way to provide your body with what it needs — both in terms of quality and quantity.  On the other hand, each body needs a minimum amount of fuel to run efficiently and at its highest potential. Based on your question, it sounds as though you may not be getting the minimum amount of fuel for your body. For most people, hunger is the number one reminder that they need to eat. To boost your hunger and appetite, you might want to consider trying the following tips:

  • Exercise daily. At least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity each day has been shown to relieve stress, increase energy, and promote a healthy appetite.
  • Add variety to your regular diet. Sometimes even the foods you enjoy can start to seem boring. Experimenting with new herbs and spices in addition to new foods might be a great way to get excited about eating.

Sometimes, however, poor appetite may be indicative of an underlying health issue.  Research has shown that a loss of appetite can be associated with old age, as well as illness and even pregnancy. Illnesses as serious as cancer and as simple as the common cold are all known to decrease appetite. But it’s not always physical: Mental health issues such as depression or anxiety can affect your appetite as well. A few questions to consider: Have you always had a low appetite? Is under-eating something new for you? If so, does this change in appetite or eating habits correlate with any other events or issues going on in your life? If this is a fairly new phenomenon or sudden change, you may want to speak to a health care provider to rule out any underlying issues. Columbia students can log on to Open Communicator to make an appointment with either a medical provider or Registered Dietician at Medical Services.

In the meantime, you can check out What to eat? for an overview of…well, what to eat. Generally, nutrition experts believe that the basis for a good diet is exercise, combined with eating lots colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins such as poultry, fish, beans and eggs.  It is advised that sugary drinks, red meats (beef, pork, lamb), processed meats (bacon, deli meats), and refined grains (white potatoes, white bread, white rice) as well as alcohol be consumed in moderation. Hope this advice whets your apetite!

Alice

Bulimia and hair loss

Dear Reader,

Congratulations to you for your month Bulimia-free! Hopefully you are getting the support you need to maintain healthy eating. In addition to the psychological distress of Bulimia, there are a number of physiological problems that can develop, of which hair loss is just one. The good news is that hair loss is temporary, but the bad news is that it can take awhile (as you may have been noticing) for hair to return to its previous state. It generally takes 6 to 12 months before hair growth starts to resume normally.

Bulimia is an eating disorder usually characterized by a pattern of eating that involves bingeing (consuming large quantities of food at one sitting) and purging (doing something to expel the consumed food, i.e. forcing oneself to vomit, taking laxatives, or excessive exercise). People with bulimia may become deficient in certain nutrients, may develop a high level of acidity in the body, have poor blood circulation, and are often dehydrated. All four of these conditions on their own can contribute to hair loss. Put them all altogether, plus the psychological stress (another factor hostile to hair), and you have the perfect storm for hair loss.

Hair is made of a protein called keratin, the same protein also found in skin and nails. When your body becomes deficient in protein and certain vitamins, hair growth is one of the first functions to go because the body prioritizes vital organs over hair. Thus, the hair growth cycle becomes disrupted. There are three primary phases of hair growth. On the first stage, hair grows from the root. In the second, hair grows also from the shaft. The final stage is the loss phase. Both nutrient deficiency and gastric problems can result in the first two stages being cut short, leading to premature hair loss. So hair loss occurs because the rate of hair loss increases (a typical individual loses between 50 and 100 hairs per day) and because hair is not being replenished at the same rate. High acidity also makes it harder for hair to thrive, as does dehydration, which makes hair dry and brittle. Poor circulation means less blood flow to the scalp, which further starves hair of nutrients. So all of this explains why it’s taking a while for your hair to return to normal.

Bulimia can also cause complications with kidney, liver, and heart functioning. Excessive vomiting can cause damage to one’s stomach, esophagus, and mouth, because the acidity is harmful to both soft tissue and teeth. So again, the fact that you have stopped your bingeing and purging and are recovering is wonderful news for your health all around, hair included.

If you’re a Columbia student and interested in finding more support in your recovery from bulimia, you can make an appointment with Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) by calling x4-2878. You can also make an appointment with a member of the Eating Disorders Team by calling x4-2284 or logging on to Open Communicator. Outside of Columbia, you can try the The National Eating Disorders Association eating disorders information and referrals line at 1.800.931.2237 for referrals, assistance, support, and other information.

Take care,

Alice

Which are better: Desserts high in fat or in sugar?

Dear Sweet tooth,

Unfortunately, the notion that "a calorie is a calorie" doesn't necessarily hold true. According to that sentiment, 100 calories of fresh strawberries would be equal to 100 calories of chocolate cake. More important than the number of calories are the types of fat and sugar in a delectable dessert. So if you're making a choice between two desserts, both containing 300 calories, where one has most of its calories from fat, and the other from sugar, it is best to compare the types of fat and sugar in the two.

Trans fats are the most harmful. Trans fats are made by heating liquid vegetable oil in the presence of hydrogen gas, a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenating vegetable oils makes them less likely to spoil and less likely to break down when heated and re-heated at high temperatures. Most of the trans fats come from commercially prepared baked goods, margarines, and processed foods, along with French fries and other fried foods prepared in fast food and other restaurants. Even small amounts of trans fat in the diet can have harmful health effects. Eating even a few calories from trans fats daily, the amount found in a medium order of French fries, raises one’s risk for heart disease by 23 percent. Trans fats also cause more weight gain than other kinds of fats. In 2006, New York City became the first city to ban trans fats.

Saturated fats are less harmful than trans fats. The body produces its own saturated fat so we don’t need to eat it. Saturated fats come mainly from red meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy products (including cheese, milk, and ice cream). A few plants are also high in saturated fats, including coconuts. Saturated fats raise cholesterol levels, both good cholesterol (HDL) and bad cholesterol (LDL). It's a good idea to keep your intake of saturated fats low, about 7% or less of your caloric intake.

Unsaturated fats are the healthiest. They do not increase risk of heart disease and they raise levels of good cholesterol while lowering bad cholesterol. Unsaturated fats are predominantly found in plant foods, such as vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and avocadoes. Fish also contain unsaturated fats in the form of omega 3 fats. Unlike saturated fats, the human body does not produce its own unsaturated fat. Some research also indicates that unsaturated fats can lower your risk for certain cancers.

So what about sugars? There are many types of sugar, but only two main types of sugar to be concerned with health-wise: natural and added. Natural sugar is found in fruits, vegetables, milk, whole grain foods, yogurt, and most fruit juice. Too much added sugar can contribute to risk for heart disease (by increasing cholesterol), tooth decay, contributing to weight gain, and decreasing the amount of nutrient-rich calories that you consume. The American Heart Association has specific guidelines for added sugar: no more than 100 to 150 calories a day from added sugar, or no more than 6 to 9 teaspoons. In the U.S., the average person consumes more than 22 teaspoons (or 355 calories) of added sugar a day. The biggest added-sugar culprit is soda and the second is sweets (candy and desserts). Cutting down on sodas and sweets is the best way to reduce added sugar, as well as checking out the labels on your cereals, syrups, jams, jellies, and other condiments.

Remember, the body needs sugar and fat to function, it just doesn’t need as much as is typically found in the western diet. Paying attention to portion control — that is, the volume of dessert you put onto your plate — can help you manage your diet as well.

Stay sweet,

Alice

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