Nutrition & Physical Activity

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Am I too nuts for nuts?

Dear Reader,

A few things to consider: First, do the nuts and nut butters you’re eating have added salt or sugars? If so, you may want to look at your overall sodium and sugar intake. You can have “too much of a good thing” when it comes to salt and sugar. Second, how’s the rest of your diet? Are you eating lots of vegetables (don’t forget your greens)? What about whole grains and fruits? While the calories in nuts can meet your body’s energy needs and provide protein, fiber, and some vitamins, there are additional nutrients, vitamins, carbohydrates, and sugars that can only be found in vegetables, fruits, starches, and other protein sources. So, dear reader, depending on your answers to the questions above, the amount of nuts you consume may or may not help you achieve a balanced diet. If you're not sure what a balanced diet looks like, head on over to for more information.

Nuts provide a lot of nutritional benefits, not to mention convenience in the form of a quick and tasty snack. As you might already know, nuts are mostly made up of vegetable protein and unsaturated fat, as well as dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Studies have shown that eating nuts lowers the risks of coronary disease and cardiac death, and reduces serum cholesterol levels and risk of type 2 diabetes in women.

Some may worry that too many nuts will contribute to weight gain, but that doesn’t sound like an issue for you.  Weight gain is a result of calories in versus calories out. While nuts are a calorie-dense food, if the remainder of your diet is mostly low-calorie fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and some lean protein source, you probably aren’t eating more calories than you burn. The amount of calories you need is dependent on a number of factors, physical activity levels included. Eating nuts is even potentially protective against weight gain, as nuts can increase feelings of fullness and replace calories that would be consumed in other foods, leading to smaller and less frequent meals. Further, the number on the scale doesn’t necessarily indicate the health of a person. If you feel good, are living an active lifestyle, and consuming a balanced diet, your nutty obsession should be just fine. If you'd like to ask even more questions about your diet, you might consider making an appointment with a registered dietitian.

Enjoy and happy snacking!


GMOs — okay for consumption?

Dear Reader,

GMOs are controversial — and so, as you might have guessed, the pros and cons are continuously being debated. GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. GM foods are developed — and marketed — because there is some perceived advantage to either producers or consumers. Companies that produce GM foods believe that genetic modification can result in increased production of foods as well as crops that have higher nutritional value.

On the other hand, there are several arguments that GMOs are dangerous, both to humans and the environment. The main concerns about GMOs in relation to human health are the potential to cause allergic reactions, gene transfer to human bacteria and toxicity. No dedicated human experiments with GMOs have been conducted, but animal studies with different genetically modified crops have yielded worrisome results, including demonstrating that GMO consumption is linked with infertility, immune issues, insulin regulation problems and changes in vital organs including the liver, kidneys and gastrointestinal system.

There are also environmental concerns related to GM crops, including their potential effects on ecological systems and their stability in the environment. There is a risk that engineered genes could be introduced into wild populations, harming beneficial species and reducing biodiversity. As of now there has been no evidence that GMOs are a threat to human health, and over two billion acres of genetically modified crops have been cultivated. All GM foods currently available on the international market have undergone risk assessments to determine any impact they may have on human health or the environment.

GMOs remain a controversial issue and many large health organizations have yet to present a perspective on them. Ultimately, each GMO is different and needs to be individually studied and assessed. Keep your eyes and ears open as more information about GMOs becomes available.


What to do about salty sweat stains?

Dear Salty,

It’s no wonder you’re a little salty — committing yourself to working out most days of the week takes hard work and planning. Spending extra time washing workout clothes is the last thing you want to do. Here’s the thing: Nearly everyone sweats, and all sweat is salty. In fact, salty sweat stains are normal, even common. However, the volume and salt concentration will vary from person to person depending on genetics, metabolism, body weight, and environment. For instance, some people sweat so profusely that a crust of salt forms on their skin and clothing during workouts, while others perspire lightly and don’t show any evidence of salt on the skin after a strenuous workout. Luckily for you, there are lots of ways to deal with this issue. Keep reading! 

Since you don’t mention any health concerns or troubling symptoms, instead of altering your diet or water consumption to solve this problem, you may want to first try these other tactics:

  • Wear an undershirt to absorb sweat before it reaches the fabric of your outer black shirt.
  • Bring lots of black shirts to the gym and leave them in a locker. Keep dirty and clean shirts separate, and once you’ve run out of clean ones, take all of them home to wash in one go.
  • Try buying some new workout clothes designed to wick sweat away from the body and dry quickly. Spot clean the stains away after each workout with cold water, and wash the entire shirt thoroughly every two to three uses.
  • Use an antiperspirant, which will help prevent sweat from happening in the first place. Less sweat means less salt to form stains on your clothes. Be careful when applying — antiperspirants can cause stains too.
  • Choose a gym that doesn’t require black shirts. Shirts of other colors may hide the evidence of salty sweat rings better than black ones.
  • For a less expensive option, exercise at home or in the great outdoors.
  • For a sweat-free but challenging cardio workout, try swimming. The cool water will prevent sweat from sticking to your skin or clothes.
  • Don’t exercise in the heat unless you’re acclimatized to such conditions. The amount of salt in sweat averages at approximately 500 milligrams per pound of sweat, but if you aren’t accustomed to working out in hot weather, you can lose up to 1,100 mg of sodium per pound of sweat.

You mentioned trying to decrease the amount of salt in your sweat. This would presumably be done by decreasing the sodium in your diet. While most Americans could benefit from doing this, you may currently be getting just the right amount for your body and it’s not clear whether decreasing salt would make the salt rings go away. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults consume no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. There are exceptions for individuals of certain demographics — for example, individuals with diabetes and those who are over 51 years of age should consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day. If you are within range, you might want to talk to your health care provider before making alterations to your diet. Check out the intake. In terms of water consumption, check out Not drinking enough fluids? from the Go Ask Alice! archives.

Columbia students have access to the Dodge Fitness Center and the Uris swimming pool, and are encouraged to participate in CU Move, Columbia’s initiative to promote physical activity and healthy living. Additionally, Columbians can meet with a doctor at Medical Services on the Morningside Campus or Student Health at the Medical Center Campus for personalized advice regarding sweat, exercise, and salt intake. For more general information about exercise and fitness, check out the Fitness section of the Go Ask Alice! archives. For tips and tricks related to salt intake and other aspects of a nutritious diet, take a peek at the Get Balanced Guide for Healthier Eating.

Again, nice job maintaining a workout routine — keep it up!


Tongkat Ali — safe aphrodisiac for men?

Dear Reader,

While many people have probably not heard of it, Tongkat Ali has historically been used to treat health problems ranging from fevers to intestinal worms. This herbal extract is most popularly known (no wonder!) as an aphrodisiac for men. Although it comes from a plant in the Southeast Asian rainforests, it is now widely available either as a pill or an instant coffee additive. This herbal supplement, also known as Eurycoma Longifolia (EL), has not shown any severe health consequences in experiments conducted with rats. However, as a non-FDA approved substance which has not yet been tested extensively in humans, caution and careful consideration should be given along with consulting with a healthcare provider.

In one study, rats given various doses of Tongkat Ali were found to have increased sexual activity and greater sperm quality. Bigger effects were seen at higher doses, and doses ranged from 30 to 150 milligrams of drug per one kilogram of body weight (mg/kg). In another experiment with rats, administering doses of 1200 to 2400 mg/kg caused some liver damage in a few test subjects but did not otherwise harm them. While there are not studies of long-term use in animals or humans (including studies in women), researchers suggested further investigation of the impacts on the liver as well as research into sustained use.

If you are considering or taking Tongkat Ali pills, the largest dose usually recommended for humans is 400 milligrams per day, which is far below the toxic dose observed in the rat study. If you prefer Tongkat Ali-based coffee mix (TACM), a small trial with 20 human subjects showed that drinking 21 grams of TACM daily for four weeks improved participants’ ability to orgasm and sexual satisfaction, but had no significant impact on their body mass index (BMI), waistline, erectile function, or blood pressure. It is important to note, however, that the study subjects were overall healthy individuals. As always, if you have any health problems or are taking other medication, it’s best to talk to your health provider before starting any supplement, including Tongkat Ali. Columbia students can make appointments by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or Student Health (Medical Center).

Wishing you safe and pleasurable experiences!


What can I do with egg yolks?

Dear Reader,

What an egg-cellent question! Not only can egg yolks be used for recipes and DIY-beauty products, but also eggs are a healthy component of a balanced diet, as both the yolks and whites are rich sources of nutrients. Egg whites contain 4 grams of protein, only 17 calories, and almost no fat. While egg yolks actually contain more than 90 percent of the calcium, iron, zinc, folate, and Vitamins B6, B12, A, E, D, and K found in eggs, you’re correct that they can also be an unhealthy source of cholesterol

In fact, the American Heart Association recommends that Americans eat less than 300 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per day, but just one egg yolk has about 185 mg of cholesterol. One recent study even suggests that for people already at risk for heat disease, eating three or more egg yolks per week could be as damaging to arteries as smoking. Other research finds that eating eggs in moderation does not negatively affect cholesterol levels in healthy individuals. Check out the Alice! Health Promotion Nutrition Initiatives for more information about integrating eggs into a healthy diet.

If you do find yourself with extra yolks, you can use them to make custard, crème brûlée, aioli, Hollandaise Sauce, and more. For recipes, just do a quick Internet search for “egg yolk recipes.” Yolks can be saved for later by refrigerating them for three to four days or, for longer-term storage, freezing them in ice cube trays mixed with a pinch of salt or sugar. And for those who should avoid eating egg yolks altogether, there’s a sunny side — you can use egg yolks to create DIY hair treatments. Some people swear by egg yolks as treatments for split ends, dull or dry locks, and for strengthening weak strands. Again, a quick Internet search for “egg yolk hair treatments” will provide more than enough recipes to get you started.

Hope this was egg-ducational,


Lentil is a lentil is a lentil?

Dear Reader,

Lentils are small, round, lens shaped edible plants that are produced in various colors and sizes. They are celebrated for their long shelf life, low cost, and excellent nutritional content. Specifically, they are low in sodium and cholesterol, yet high in beneficial nutrients such as thiamin, phosophorus, copper, vitamin C, folate, iron, manganese, and dietary fiber. Better yet, because lentils generally don’t contain sulfur, they don’t cause gastrointestinal distress like many other legumes (e.g., beans). The variety in lentils exists mostly among their color, size, shape, and flavor — nutritional content remains fairly consistent across different lentil varieties.

Many different lentil varieties are sold in grocery stores in the United States. The following are the most widely available lentils on the market:

  • Brown Lentils: the most common lentil in the United States features a mildly earthly flavor profile and smooth texture.
  • Yellow Lentils: sweet and nutty, yellow lentils break down quickly when cooked and are used as a thickening agent in many recipes, such as Indian dal (yum!).
  • Red Lentils: a light red to orange color, red lentils are actually a split and hulled version of the yellow lentil, with the shortest cooking time of all varieties.
  • Black Lentils: dark on the outside, black lentils contain a light, creamy flesh and resemble beluga caviar when cooked.
  • Green Lentils: firm and flavorful, green lentils don’t break down easily with stirring or mixing, making them ideal for salads and pilafs.
  • French Green Lentils or Puy Lentils: a smaller and darker type of green lentil, French green lentils are firm in texture and distinguished by their lightly speckled surface.

Many vegetarians and vegans love lentils for their high protein content. In fact, lentils are the third most protein dense legume out there, trumped only by soybeans and hemp. Although lentils are a wonderful source of protein, it’s important to note that they’re an incomplete protein, meaning that one should also consume grains in order to provide the body with all essential amino acids to create a complete protein. The lentils and grains don't need to be eaten at the same exact time in order to be used by the body to build protein, as once was thought. The complementary proteins just need to be consumed within 24 hours of each other. Incomplete proteins come from plant-based foods, such as beans, rice, grains, legumes (other than soy), and vegetables.

The slight nutritional differences between various types of lentils are mostly a product of the manner in which the lentils are prepared. For example, whole green and brown lentils contain more fiber than hulled red and black ones; raw lentils are slightly higher in protein than cooked ones; and raw sprouted lentils may be higher in carbohydrates than other varieties.

Lentils are a fantastic addition to any diet. For more information about nutrition, check out the Get Balanced Guide to Healthier Eating as well as the Alice! Health Promotion Nutrition Initiatives. For questions about your specific individual nutritional needs, make an appointment with Medical Services on the Morningside Campus or Student Health at the Medical Center to speak with a healthcare provider or nutritionist.


Medicine balls for exercise?

Dear Reader,

Medicine ball training is a great supplement to regular exercise! Whether you’re trying to incorporate strength training into your exercise routine or you’re looking to target specific muscles, medicine balls can help improve overall fitness. However, medicine balls are not sufficient solely on their own. To be most effective, combine the use of medicine balls with other forms of aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging, cycling, or swimming. Major benefits of using a medicine ball include improving muscular power, endurance, and overall fitness.

Since you’re new to exercising with medicine balls, it’s better to start with a light ball (3 to10 pounds) and work your way up to greater resistance so that you can learn to maintain proper form. Simply holding a medicine ball over your head while you do crunches can improve your abdominal workout. Or you can recruit a partner to stand above you at your feet, while you sit and hold the medicine ball at chest level. When you lift up in your crunch position, toss the medicine ball to your partner and hold your crunch until your partner tosses it back. Lower and repeat. Make sure you have a spacious workout area. Or, if weather permits, take your medicine ball outside for a workout!

Here are a few more exercises to get you started:

  • Beginning in a squat position, hold the medicine ball in both hands between your legs. In a rapid movement, bring your arms upward and over your head. Then, bring your arms down and release the ball at chest level. Repeat.
  • Lie on your back with your legs straight and your arms extended over your head, holding the medicine ball. Simultaneously raise your legs and arms into a seated V-position, bringing the medicine ball over your head. Return to start position and repeat.
  • Sit on the floor with your knees bent, feet flat, and hold the ball at chest level. Lift your legs slightly to a 90 degree angle and rotate your torso to the left, tapping the ball on the floor outside your left hip. Bring the ball back to your chest and rotate to the right, tapping the ball on the floor outside your right hip to complete one repetition. Repeat. 

The size and shape of the medicine ball you choose may vary depending on the exercise being performed — probably anywhere from 2 pounds to over 25 pounds. A heavier ball is good for strength training, while a lighter ball is good for speed training. Many are round, but some also have handles, sports-specific shapes, or even ropes attached. The size does not always correlate to the weight. The materials in medicine balls usually include leather, nylon,or another rubberized material.

Strength training should be done a minimum of two days a week, with 8 to12 repetitions of 8 to10 different exercises that target major muscle groups. Not all of these exercises need to be done with medicine balls. Strength training can also be accomplished using body weight, resistance bands, free weights, or weight machines. If you are planning on a rigorous physical activity regiment, it’s 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. For a more personalized consultation on how to use a medicine ball, consider talking with a certified personal trainer at a fitness center.


It's Greek (yogurt) to me!

Dear It’s Greek to me,

Greek, or strained, yogurt seems to be making all the top healthy food lists and taking up ever more space on the grocery store shelves lately. It’s great that you’re skeptical of what could feel like a healthy food fad. While yogurt is generally considered to be a healthy food and can be part of a healthful diet, Greek yogurt does have an edge over the regular stuff.

Greek yogurt differs from normal yogurt in that liquid whey is strained out of the yogurt to give it a tangier taste and richer, creamier texture. But how different is Greek yogurt from regular yogurt? Not so different, it turns out. In fact, Greek yogurt can actually be made from regular yogurt — all that is involved is placing regular yogurt on a cheese cloth and letting some of the liquid whey drain out into a container below it. Greek yogurt has a similar nutritional profile as regular yogurt in terms of being a good source of protein, calcium, phosphorus, riboflavin (vitamin B2), thiamin (vitamin B1), and vitamin B12, as well as of folate, niacin, magnesium and zinc. Any type of yogurt that contains probiotics (live bacterial cultures) is associated with a number of possible health benefits, such as aiding digestion, having antidiarrheal properties, combatting carcinogens, regulating gut environment, alleviating irritable bowel syndrome, and boosting immune response. 

So from where does Greek yogurt’s slight edge over regular yogurt originate? Greek yogurt has a higher protein and lower complex carbohydrate content than normal yogurt, as the process of making Greek yogurt allows some of the sugars in the yogurt to be strained out in the whey-containing liquid. However, check the label on what you bought — some varieties have added sweeteners, resulting in higher sugar levels. Also, keep the fat content in mind. Though many non-fat varieties of Greek yogurt are now available, fuller fat varieties can pack in the saturated fat.  

If you like the taste and texture, then consider buying it again next week. The consumption of high protein snacks (Greek yogurt is considered to be an excellent choice) has been linked to reduced appetite, increased feelings of fullness and less frequent and heavy meals, compared to not snacking and to consuming regular varieties of yogurt. There are many uses for Greek yogurt besides as a snack. You could try Greek yogurt as a low-fat replacement for sour cream, in cooking, or as a salad dressing. Try swapping it for mayonnaise on a sandwich or in a dish like egg salad. Mixed with seasonings like garlic or dill, it can be made into a unique dip for veggies. Throw some fruit and granola on it for breakfast.

Hope you understand Greek (yogurt) a bit better now!


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!


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!


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