Nutrition & Physical Activity
There is so much nutrition information available from a host of different sources and it’s not hard to see why confusion can arise. You may have access to information published in scientific journals, which are studies that have been critiqued by nutrition experts. At the other end of the spectrum, some sources such as websites and corporate advertisements are created with the intention of boosting sales of the latest diet book or food product. In order to increase the chances of finding valid nutrition information, it's important to identify, use, and refer back to sources you trust. Additionally, when comparing information from multiple sources it is very important to make sure you are comparing exactly the same thing (same serving size, same source, etc).
When gathering information online, it is important to determine who sponsors the site, how often it is updated, the sources for information, and if advertising is involved (or influences content). As an example; Go Ask Alice! is sponsored by Columbia University, content is updated daily (all pages have an update date listed), the sources are described (see below), and the site is advertising free (learn about our no ad policy).
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is generally the most reliable source of nutrition and food-related information for the general public in the United States. The dietary guidelines can be found at their MyPlate website where you can also find sample menus and recipes, a food tracker, BMI calculator, as well as several other useful health and food-related tools.
The USDA also has a National Nutrient Database, which is a reliable source for nutrient values for foods. Frequently, this site is accessed by nutrition researchers and developers of nutrient analysis programs. The National Nutrient Database site is user friendly enough that even regular people will be able to do a food search during her/his first visit to the site. Even the National Nutrient Database site, however, can be confusing. For example, it will generate conflicting numbers for nutrients in products such as milk, which comes in a number of varieties. For example, cow's milk provides 8 grams of protein per 8 ounces, evaporated skim milk provides 19 grams, and soy milk, 3 grams. The lesson learned here is to check the details of the food you searched for if the results seem different. For example, a search for milk could yield information on both coconut milk and cow's milk.
The MyPlate SuperTracker and the Nutrient Analysis Tool (NAT) are comprehensive online programs that can be used to analyze not just one food, but an entire day of food intake. They show a comparison of the analysis to your daily nutrient needs. The food lists in these programs come from the USDA National Nutrient Database, and nutrient needs are based on the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA).
RDAs are amounts of nutrients that, if consumed on a daily basis, would meet the needs of approximately 97 percent of the population, and are amounts that have been established after years of intensive research studies. The RDA of protein for adult males is 56 grams per day, and for women it is 46 grams per day. This general recommendation is based on 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, for individuals in good general health. Protein needs can vary depending on a person's health status and exercise regimen.
For a personalized assessment of your nutrient needs Columbia studnets can make an appointment with a Registered Dietitian. Columbia University students can call x4-2284 or log into Open Communicator to schedule an appointment. Non-students may have access to a nutritionist through her/his primary health care provider or search for a dietitian in your area through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics web site. You might also want to check out the resources listed on the Columbia Health Get Balanced nutrition page.
For additional information regarding finding quality health information online, check out Health information on-line: Whom can you trust? Hopefully these new resources will help to clear up your nutrient value confusion, making it easier for you to make healthier eating choices.
"Apple cider vinegar a day keeps the doctor away" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Even still, many people claim that this product of fermented crushed apples yields a variety of health benefits including those that you mentioned. Usually taken in liquid, powder, or pill form before meals, it's most often used to aid digestion since the high acetic acid content helps break down food. In addition to this, it has also been used for centuries to treat fungal infections and sunburn. Although this may spark a domino effect on other aspects of health, there is no scientific proof that it has any effect on weight, blood pressure, or acne.
A common misconception about apple cider vinegar is that it curbs appetite and promotes fat burning, but physiologically, even though acetic acid intake may temporarily facilitate loss of water weight, it doesn't appear to affect fat. In fact, the high acidity of the vinegar may cause erosion of tooth enamel, throat irritation, and drug/supplement interactions (particularly with insulin and diuretics). It also acts as a blood thinner, so people who are on blood-thinning medications may want to reconsider its use.
Because the confirmed health benefits of apple cider vinegar are often a result of its high nutrient content (including iron, calcium, copper, and potassium), the choice between organic and non-organic is one to consider carefully. Non-organic apple cider vinegar has undergone pasteurization, the process of heating the liquid to a very high temperature to kill bacteria. As a result, the vinegar is much clearer and more attractive to consumers but in the process has lost the bulk of its nutrient content. Depending on what the consumer is aiming to gain from apple cider vinegar, this could affect the health benefits they experience. Then again, the potential bacteria content in organic (unpasteurized) apple cider vinegar could be problematic. Regardless of the nutritional supplement, a health care provider could be consulted before starting any alternative treatment.
Overall, if the reason for using apple cider vinegar is to lose weight, reduce blood pressure, or prevent acne, there are other treatments whose effects have been scientifically confirmed. In terms of weight loss, the key is to consume fewer calories than you burn on a daily basis. Routine physical exercise and a diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein are your best bet. For more guidance on addressing these health concerns, see the Q&As below. You may also want to consider speaking with a health care provider or registered dietitian. Columbia students can make an appointment with Medical Services (Morningside campus) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).
In the end, an apple a day is more likely to keep the doctor away!
When it comes to weight, the two factors to pay attention to are calories consumed and calories burned. If you consume more calories than you burn, you will gain weight and vice versa. The problem here is either that you are not consuming enough calories or your body is somehow not making the best use of them. Before we get into the biological possibilities, try a quick dietetic experiment.
With all the media surrounding diets and obesity, it may be easy to get the wrong idea about what constitutes "healthy." Eating a lot of vegetables as you do is great (and a vital component of a healthy diet) but vegetables are low in calories and many don't contain fat or protein, both nutrients your body needs. When you feel those hunger pains, consider grabbing a snack or a meal that combines all of these, such as a salad with chicken (lean protein), avocado (healthy fat and a fruit!), and low-fat ranch dressing. Including more healthy fats (limit trans and saturated fats) and lean proteins (also found in seafood, dairy, and nuts) in your diet may help you feel fuller longer and will also add more healthy calories into your diet.
If this doesn't curb your appetite, there may be other factors affecting your hunger sensors, which a health care provider may help identify. Some questions to ask yourself are whether you've been feeling increased anxiety, if you've recently started or changed medications, or if you've experienced increased thirst, heart palpitations, or a need to urinate. These may be signs of hunger-causing conditions such as:
- Anxiety and other mental conditions
- The use of drugs such as corticosteroids and anti-depressants
- An overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism)
- Grave's Disease
List adapted from The National Institutes of Health.
If you experience nausea or vomiting along with your insatiable hunger, that may be a sign that you have a parasite (such as tapeworm) in your digestive track. That possibility brings a whole new meaning to "eating for two." In the related Q&A's below, you may want to read more about parasites as well as other conditions that could explain your hunger. Regardless of the cause of your insatiability, though, if you lose more than ten pounds or five percent of your bodyweight unexpectedly or if weight loss persists, consider contacting a health care provider to get to the bottom of the issue…and your bottomless stomach. Columbia students may do this by contacting Medical Services or logging on to Open Communicator.
Whatever the cause of your endless appetite, hopefully this has sated your hunger for an answer. Eat up!
February 3, 2012506179
Dear Overactive eater,
Generally, a case of the munchies is your body's way of signaling that it's time to refuel. If snacks and even full meals don't fill you up, there may be another cause for your ongoing hunger. If diet changes don't do the trick, a visit to a health care provider may ease your mind and your appetite.
Based on your description, it sounds like you can rule out the possibility of a digestive parasite. Rather than fueling your hunger, most stomach bugs cause digestive troubles like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea that can kill your appetite. There is one infamous bug, the Taeniasis parasite (aka tapeworm), that is often blamed for insatiable appetites or unintended weight loss. However, Taeniasis is acquired by eating infected pork or beef so it's not likely that you have a tapeworm since you've been vegetarian for years.
As you suggested, people who follow a vegetarian diet sometimes don't get enough protein. These power nutrients give your body energy and also help you feel full, more so than carbs or fruits and vegetables. Vegetarians also need to consider the kind of proteins they eat. Unlike meats, individual plant foods don't supply all the amino acids that your body needs. To make sure you're getting a complete protein package, try combing two complementary foods that offer different amino acids from these four protein groups: grains, legumes or beans, seeds and nuts, and eggs and dairy. For example, a PBJ sandwich combines grains (go for whole wheat bread!) and legumes (peanuts) for a complete protein. Similarly, a yogurt parfait with fruit and almonds complements dairy with nuts. Newer research has indicated that protein pairings need not be consumed at the same time. That is, it should be sufficient to combine the complementary foods within the same day. For more tasty protein pairings, check out the related Q&As below about protein sources.
Another source of satisfaction comes from eating enough fat. Depending on your level of physical activity and other factors your fat needs will vary. However recent research shows that eating moderate amounts of healthy fats can really help satisfy. In addition to nuts, think avocado and healthy oils (canola, olive, safflower, trans-fat free spreads). Check out ChoseMyPlate.gov to calculate your calorie, protein, fat, and carb needs and determine whether what you're eating should be filling you up.
To make sure you're eating enough of the right proteins and fats as part of a balanced diet, it may also be helpful for you to keep a food journal. You can use the journal to plan out meals, make grocery lists that include healthy and filling snacks, and record when and what you eat throughout the day (and night). The food journal may help you answer some key questions to explain the uptick in your appetite. For example, are you eating enough calories throughout the day to make you feel full? Do your tummy rumblings coincide with any particular emotions like stress, sadness, or happiness? If you do end up seeing a health care provider, the journal will help them understand your diet and what might be causing your excess hunger.
If diet changes don't seem to satisfy your hunger, there may be an underlying health condition that's giving you the munchies. According to the National Institute of Health, causes of increased appetite may include:
- Certain medications (such as corticosteroids and some antidepressants)
- Grave's disease
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
List adapted from the article Appetite - increased at MedlinePlus
Since there are a variety of explanations for your hunger pangs, if adding a healthy balance of proteins and fats to your plate won't satiate your appetite, your best bet is to see a health care provider. Getting medical attention is a good idea especially if you have any other unexplained symptoms like frequent urination, increased heart rate, or feeling very thirsty. Students at Columbia on the Morningside campus can call 212-854-7426 or log on to Open Communicator to make an appointment with a health care provider or nutritionist at Medical Services. If you are a student on the CUMC campus, give the Student Health Center a call at 212-305-3400 to make an appointment with a health care provider or nutritionist.
Fueling up with more complete proteins and healthy fats may help you feel full and keep your body running strong. If your hunger still hangs around, visit a health care provider to find out what your body needs to fill up and feel good. Take care,
Dear Cart Pushing Professional,
Work life may get tough, but when push comes to shove, don't put your back into it! Your attention to your body is an excellent first step in pain prevention. While there are some things you may do to reduce your pain, it's important to know that your employer is also expected to provide a safe working environment for you, free of conditions that cause injury.
Remember when pushing the cart(s) or other heavier items, try to bend from your hips rather than your waist. You'll know you're doing this right if your back is straight and you feel yourself using your legs. If you have a "hump" when you bend or if you find yourself hunching as you bend and twist, it means you're probably putting more stress on your back. Try to move from your lower core, putting your weight on your glutes (butt muscles). Flexing your stomach muscles while cart-pushing may add more support from your core, as well, hopefully helping to take pressure off your knees. Another option may be to see if your employer may provide you with some type of support belt that may help distribute the pressure more evenly and support your lower back. Staying well hydrated throughout your shift may also help prevent soreness, and healthy snacks and meals may help you sustain your energy level.
Stretching is certainly a good way to help with soreness, as is the occasional massage. Unless you know someone, professional massages may be costly. If funds for an occasional massage aren't in your budget, consider trading massages with a friend or locating a massage school where you may be able to get discounts with massage therapists in training.
You also mentioned that the snow makes pushing carts more difficult. One thing that may help is a device consisting of rubber straps that you may stretch over the soles of your shoes. Lining these rubber straps are small, metal rings that dig into ice and snow, creating friction and reducing or eliminating slippage. Runners and hikers often use them to stay active in the winter months and they may be found at many outdoor and sporting goods stores at a low price. Make sure to use the kind that has studs on the entire sole, rather than ones only of the ball or heel. You may consider asking your employer to cover the cost or give you a discount if they're sold in your store.
Speaking of which, you employer has the responsibility to provide a safe working environment for you — they are required by Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). Any employee of a private company may make an anonymous complaint and request an investigation. Even if your employer were to somehow find out it were you, they're legally prohibited from firing you, refusing to promote or give you a raise, or otherwise punish you from making the complaint. For more information, check out the OSHA website or call 1-800-321 OSHA.
Lastly, seeing a health care provider may help rule out serious injuries as the cause of your soreness and may be able to provide you with more information for pain relief and injury prevention. If you're a student, you may be covered by your school's health care plan. Columbia students can make an appointment by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).
Working hard is important, and ensuring that you stay healthy to continue working in the long run may be even more important. Try some of the precautions, exercise self care, and flex your employee rights — work doesn't have to be back breaking!
March 20, 2012508875
It's great that you want to stay active and try new sports or activities, both at Columbia and beyond. There are lots of resources for adult sports education in New York City, and with so much online information it's sometimes hard know where to look.
If you like exercising in the great outdoors, check out Central Park's list of activities and resources. This site has information on a wide range of activities, from road running to wall climbing, and much more. Some of the activities do have fees, so be sure to read the fine print. Also, many of these are not instructional, so if you're looking to try something new and want to take a class, you might look a little further downtown at Chelsea Piers.
Although you will have to spend a bit more money, Chelsea Piers just might be worth the extra cash. This place has just about everything you're looking for, including a wide range of sports, and all levels of instruction from beginner to advanced. The field house has basketball, gymnastics, soccer and rock climbing, or check out golf lessons and ice hockey. If Chelsea is a bit too far from Columbia for you, the 92nd Street YMCA (on the East side) also has classes in basketball, racquetball and volleyball.
If hitting the roads is more your thing (and you have a bike or are thinking of getting one) you can take advantage of the organized bike rides from the New York Cycle Club that are inclusive of all types of riders. If you prefer running over cycling, check out the classes offered through New York Road Runners. You can also check out Zog Sports and MeetUp.com for groups, often organized by neighborhood, that meet up to play a range of informal and formal team sports, from soccer to softball to ultimate Frisbee. Again, some groups have fees, so check out the details.
It's great that you're revved up to try something new. If you want a great way to stay motivated and connected, you can participate with Columbia's CU Move initiative. CU Move encourages members of the Columbia community to engage in active lives that include regular physical activity. The program provides participants with motivation, incentives to be active throughout the year, and event calendars with access to plenty of free and low-cost physical activity options on campus and around NYC.
There's plenty out there to choose from, so what will it be? Ice hockey? Wall climbing? Golf? Something else entirely? The choice is yours; whatever you choose, be sure to have fun!
Dear Needing Antioxidants,
Microwave ovens may be a common and convenient fixture in many kitchens, but they have long been accused of causing cancer, radiation poisoning, and, as you mentioned, being weapons of mass destruction (of nutrients in foods, that is). No matter how you slice it, the act of cooking fruits and vegetables will destroy some of their nutrients because certain minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants cannot withstand the heat. The good news is that there are many ways to reduce the amount of nutrients lost. Additionally, microwave cooking generally does not cause any more damage to food than other cooking methods such as baking, boiling, or sautéing.
The study you mentioned noted that the broccoli was immersed in a large amount of water when it was cooked, which may have been responsible for such a high proportion of the antioxidants being destroyed; the nutrients likely leaked out into the water during cooking. Other studies have shown that when broccoli was cooked in the microwave with no water, the degree of antioxidant loss was much lower. The key ingredients to preserving antioxidants and other nutrients seem to be a shorter exposure time to heat while using as little water as possible. In that case, microwave cooking can actually be better than other methods of cooking, because it cooks food quickly and therefore reduces the time the food is heated. Other tips to keep the nutrients intact during cooking include:
- Leaving vegetables in big pieces so less surface area, and therefore less nutrients, are exposed.
- Cover your container to hold in heat and steam, which will reduce the cooking time.
- Avoid peeling the vegetable if possible; many nutrients are actually in the peel itself or just below its surface.
- Make sure you don't overcook your vegetables; take them out when they are crisp and tender.
If you are really concerned about getting enough antioxidants, you can also stick to choosing fruits and vegetables that you can eat raw, such as carrots, tomatoes, or cucumbers, or simply eating more of them. If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, think of what doubling or tripling that can do! Just keep in mind that not only is variety the spice of life, but it's also the best way to make sure you get all the antioxidants you need.
Getting the recommended amount of fiber can be a challenge, especially if you are limited in your food choices. Eating healthy foods other than whole grains is certainly one option, but with a bit of planning ahead, there are some other ways to make sure you are fulfilling your fiber and carbohydrate requirements.
If fiber is your main concern, then getting a lot of fruits and vegetables and taking a fiber supplement can help to "bridge the gap" on days where you must avoid grains. However, whole grains have a lot more to offer than just fiber. They may contain many other healthy components such as complex carbohydrates, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Whole grain consumption has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
Eating out is a challenge for anyone who has dietary restrictions, but thankfully some restaurants are adapting their menus to cater to clients that cannot eat certain foods, including wheat, dairy, gluten (a compound found in wheat and some other grains) and other common allergens. Consider talking with your server about your food allergies so they can notify the chef. They may also have some recommendations for you from the menu. If this is embarrassing for you to do in front of a client, consider calling or emailing ahead to ask about what items on the menu are free of wheat, corn, and sugar or how other dishes can be adapted to fit your needs. You might also consider ordering foods you can eat, such as salads, potato- or rice-based dishes, lean meats and seafood, and soups while out with clients, and snacking on complex carbohydrate- and fiber-rich foods before or after your business meals.
Checking out menus and calling ahead is useful because common food allergens can "hide" in places you may not expect to find them, such as salad dressings and some sauces. One resource to consider for finding a friendly restaurant is the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program website, which lists restaurants with gluten-free options throughout the US.
Since there are many benefits to eating a variety of whole grains, perhaps you can start taking some food with you when you travel, or shopping for food once you reach your destination. Since food packages must list all ingredients you can be sure you're getting what you need, avoiding what you can't eat, and you might save yourself some money in the process. Who doesn't like saving money?!
Finally, it might be useful for you to spend a little time with a dietician. A consultation could trigger many new ideas for getting the right amount of fiber. S/he is likely to present some creative and tasty options you may not have expected. If you are a Columbia Student, you can contact Medical Services (Morninside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC) to schedule an appointment with a registered dietitian on campus.
With creative planning and a visit with a professional you can be sure you're getting what your body needs to stay healthy. It might take some extra time and effort, but your health is worth it!
Fish can be an important part of a healthy diet; it's loaded with high-quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids and low in saturated fat and cholesterol. It’s also true that nearly all fish have at least trace amounts of methylmercury. The good news is that many of the commonly purchased fish in the United States, including several varieties of tuna, typically have lower levels of mercury and are safe to eat if the amount you consume doesn't exceed the weekly recommended serving size.
To answer your question specifically, Albacore (white) tuna and light tuna are the two most common kinds of canned tuna. Due to its larger size, white tuna contains significantly more mercury — up to three times more — than light tuna. The EPA guidelines state that it's safe to eat up to twelve ounces of light tuna (or any fish low in mercury) a week or six ounces of white tuna a week. Considering that the standard weight of a can of tuna is six ounces, you may be putting yourself at a risk for mercury poisoning if you're eating two to five cans per day.
So why worry about mercury? It's considered a pollutant and is released into the environment, largely from factories and other industrial settings. It eventually travels to streams and oceans where microorganisms present in the water turn it into methylmercury. Fish then absorb this chemical into their bodies from the water. Mercury levels in the fish depend on what they eat, how long they tend to live, and where they are in the underwater food chain. Larger fish typically contain higher levels of mercury not only because they're heavier and have more surface area to absorb mercury, but also because they eat smaller mercury-containing fish, which increases the larger fish's mercury content. Because of this, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends staying away from shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, since on average they have higher levels of mercury.
Most of the warnings about mercury poisoning are targeted to young children and pregnant women because exposure to mercury during development can cause neurological defects, including impairments in cognition, memory, attention, language, and fine motor skills. This is especially of concern because infants born with these impairments have been observed even when the mother showed no symptoms of poisoning. Mercury poisoning in adults can cause numbness in fingers and toes, muscle weakness, and speech, hearing, and walking impairments. And so far, research has not found that mercury exposure in humans is associated with cancer, but human studies are limited. If you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s best to visit your health care provider as soon as possible. If you feel fine but are scared of prematurely swimming with the fishes, you might want to switch up your fish or seafood meals to include a variety of low-mercury choices, such as salmon, shrimp, pollock, catfish, cod, or tilapia.
The National Resources Defense Council's Mercury Contamination in Fish - Consumer Guide to Mercury in Fish provides tools that can help make this transition proceed swimmingly. It contains a list that informs consumers of the frequency that a certain fish can be eaten safely, as well as a mercury calculator that generates a safe value for fish intake based on a person's weight and type of fish. Lastly, if cost is of concern, there are many additional options for protein and nutrients on the cheap. You could also try substituting the tasty and affordable tuna with non-fish sources of protein, such as chopped canned chicken, lean deli meats, or beans; these can also be part of a healthy diet without breaking the bank.
It's often said that the more (naturally) colorful your plate is, the healthier that meal is for you. This saying holds true in the corn arena: Blue corn does contain more of the amino acid lysine and the antioxidant anthocyanin than "regular" yellow corn; however, it loses much of these nutrients when it's processed into a chip. Blue corn chips may be slightly more nutritious in this sense, but if you're trying to increase the amounts of lysine or antioxidants in your diet, fresh and whole fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins are much better sources.
Research has also found that blue corn tortillas (fresh, not fried into chips) contain more protein than their yellow or white corn counterparts. In addition, blue corn tortillas have a lower starch content and lower glycemic index (GI) than regular corn tortillas. Both of these factors may be helpful to people on low GI diets, such as diabetics, because food with a lower starch and low GI breaks down more slowly into sugars absorbed by the blood stream and can help people avoid spikes in blood sugar levels.
Keep in mind that chips of any color are often fried and can be high in fat and calories, so it's probably best to not make them a regular snack. Baked chips or crackers may be a healthier alternative, especially if they're made with whole grains. Look for the words "whole grain" or "whole" before the grain's name on the ingredients label to make sure it falls into this category. Fiber is another important consideration in a healthy snack, and not all whole grain products are high in fiber, so be sure to look at fiber content on the nutrition label. For more information on whole grains and fiber, check out some of the Related Q&As below.