Nutrition & Physical Activity
Kudos for taking the first step and reaching out to ask about your feelings and behaviors. The symptoms you describe, including going long periods of time without eating, may be dangerous and could have long-term effects on your health. Feeling down once in a while is common but the depression you mention, and the fear of becoming more depressed if you begin eating more regularly, may be a serious clinical depression (and could be what is affecting your eating habits).
Skipping meals and intentionally not eating for periods of time (sometimes called fasting) can become addictive. Many people who fast experience euphoric feelings of well-being, feelings that are likely harmless when fasting in moderation. However, this "high" may mask feelings of being down or depressed and could explain why you feel better when you avoid eating (and why you continue to go long periods of time without food). Fasting too often can be detrimental to your health because your body is denied nutrients and energy it needs.
Avoiding food could also be a sign of a serious eating disorder: anorexia nervosa. See Eating disorders vs. normal eating for more information about the signs and symptoms of eating disorders. People with anorexia sometimes describe a feeling of control when they don't eat; a feeling that may be very powerful. You mention that you feel like you can't change anything in your life; controlling what you eat and skipping meals may be a way of feeling in control. Talking with a counselor or other mental health care provider about your feelings and eating habits may help you to understand your behaviors and feel more in control of your life.
Talking with a mental health care provider may be a good way to begin to think about other factors in your life that may be contributing to your desire to skip meals, especially when you are around your friends. If you aren't sure how to begin a conversation with a counselor, you could simply tell her or him what you have written here, or you could ask one of your concerned friends to go along and help explain what s/he has noticed about your eating habits. Gaining an understanding of why you are feeling this way is an important step to overcoming these feelings and being able to eat normally without fear of becoming depressed.
It may take some work to find the right counselor and confront your fear of becoming depressed, but you already took an important (and difficult!) first step to seeking help. It also sounds like you have good friends who want to support you. Best of luck as you take the next steps to living a healthier, happier life.
Kudos for thinking about how your behavior might affect your long-term health and writing in to ask about it. What you describe is called pica, an eating disorder where people frequently eat non-nutritive (non-food) substances. Depending on what a person eats, pica can be very dangerous. Ingesting dangerous substances or large amounts of some substances can lead to medical problems, including poisoning. There is also a risk of infection resulting from some substances, such as soil, and stomach problems including constipation, and other issues.
Fortunately, in your case soap is not a very dangerous substance, though in large amounts over time it could disrupt your health. Soap is generally non-toxic and should not lead to poisoning. However, it can cause diarrhea, vomiting or skin irritation.
The causes of pica are not known but some suggest that the following may contribute to the desire to eat non-food items:
- Nutritional deficiencies. Some speculate that pica is your body's way of telling you that you are missing some important nutrient. Iron, calcium, zinc, and vitamins C & D deficiencies have been found in people with pica.
- Culture and family influences. There is some suggestion that certain cultures and social groups accept eating non-food substances. Also, if your parents encouraged this as a child, you may still have the urge to eat these substances.
- Stress. The desire to eat non-food substances may be a coping strategy for stress.
- Underlying biochemical disorder. In some cases, pica may result from chemical imbalances in your brain.
You mentioned that eating soap makes you feel good when you're stressed. This could be a sign that your stress level is too high and your body is reacting by craving soap. You could consider finding alternative ways to deal with your stress. See Stress, anxiety and learning to cope and Number one cause of stress for some tips on other ways to combat stress.
Pica is rare in adolescents and adults, and can be the sign of other medical issues including nutrition deficiencies so you should consider contacting a health care professional to help figure out what might be causing this behavior. Columbia students on the Morningside campus can call 212-854-2284 to make an appointment or log on to Open Communicator. Students on the Medical Center campus can contact Student Health at 212-304-3400. You may also want to consider talking with a counselor about healthier strategies for coping. Columbia students can make an appointment with Counseling and Psychological Services (Morningside) or the Mental Health Service (Medical Center).
You took an important first step in asking about your behavior, but it's also important that you take the next step and talk to a health care professional who can help you figure out if there is some underlying cause. Taking care of your health is not silly — it's smart.
All the best,
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Thank you, I thought that I was the only one and I searched high and low. I feel better knowing that there is a name for it. I opened up and told two relatives and I got scared when...
Thank you, I thought that I was the only one and I searched high and low. I feel better knowing that there is a name for it. I opened up and told two relatives and I got scared when they hinted that it may cause sterility. I also only eat bar soap and it relaxes me. I will take a chunk out of it and it's kinda like woosaa.
Thank you for this post and thank you for opening up soap eater.
Congratulations on getting a handle on a difficult situation. Anorexia can be life-threatening, so you've essentially saved your own life — something that hopefully makes you proud. As you point out, a side effect of anorexia can be secondary amenorrhea (loss of period for six months of longer). Typically, women in recovery find their periods come back once they get their weight up to what it was before they stopped getting their period. Some women, who aren't underweight, but who stop getting their periods during times of extreme exercise and erratic eating, regain their period once they get back into a routine of healthy eating and exercise habits. So, your concern is warranted. And, yes, it would be a great idea to seek a medical work-up at this point. Before you head to your health care provider, it might help you to get more information.
There are several possible explanations for secondary amenorrhea. Given your history of living with anorexia you may be experiencing functional hypothalamic amenorrhea (FHA). While FHA seems to occur most frequently in women with low amounts of body fat, it can happen in women of various body shapes. The common denominator seems to be erratic eating patterns and/or excessive exercise. These behaviors disturb the thyroid gland and hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal gland in ways that lead to increased production and release of steroid hormones, called glucocorticoids (including cortisol, a major stress hormone). Also, low body weight is associated with lower levels of leptin, a necessary chemical that helps to regulate ovulation. In combination, these chemical changes in the body can affect periods and stop them altogether until the chemical balance is restored through changes in behavior and/or hormone therapy.
While your amenorrhea might be related to your history of anorexia, there are other health-related factors to secondary amenorrhea that you might want to consider:
- Hormonal contraceptives (e.g., some birth control pills, implanted or injected methods, intrauterine devices)
- Pregnancy or breast-feeding
- Extreme mental stress
- Certain medications (e.g., some antidepressants, chemotherapy drugs for cancer, oral corticosteroids)
- Chronic illness
- Thyroid problems
- Hormonal imbalance
- Benign pituitary tumor
- Uterine scarring
- Premature menopause
You can see there are many possible reasons for secondary amenorrhea. It's also important to know that women with secondary amenorrhea can be at increased risk for some pretty serious health conditions like: osteoporosis, bone fractures, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic problems.
You can contact your primary care provider or women's health specialist. If you don't have a trusted women's health care provider, you might consider finding one soon. If money's a problem, you can check out Planned Parenthood's website to find a local health center. Some Planned Parenthood centers offer sliding-fee services and other programs to cover the cost of care for people who qualify financially.
There's no doubt that secondary amenorrhea is a complex issue with many possible causes and consequences. And, everyone woman's situation is different. If investigating the absence of your period is the next step for you, working with a women's health specialist could help you get the answers you need.
To your continuing good health,
January 22, 2013522172
It's wise to keep a healthy skepticism about the marketing efforts of some of these huge food corporations. Dannon's probiotic-fortified yogurt, Activia, is certainly an example of a highly promoted product. In recent years, the global market for "functional foods," has grown to billions of dollars annually, and since these supplement-food hybrids are appearing on the shelves ever more rapidly, the FDA doesn't have a chance to evaluate all of their claims. While there is evidence that probiotics do help to improve digestion and gastronomic health, it is hard to say that one brand over another is more effective at doing so.
Probiotics, beneficial bacteria that live in the small intestine, are believed to improve digestion. These gut-friendly bacteria actually help you to digest and eliminate your food, while crowding out the unhealthy gut-dwelling bacteria that cause gas, constipation, and bloating. Studies have shown that certain probiotics can help relieve irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, constipation, atopic eczema, and may also help protect against various infections and colon cancer. Researchers have found that stressed-out rats have benefited from a serving of water containing certain probiotics. Not a flattering comparison for us people, who might feel like stressed-out rats from time to time, but the findings of the study may be helpful. Probiotics are found in many types of fermented foods, like yogurt, sauerkraut, tempeh, and miso.
Regular yogurt is made using these live cultures, and serves up a healthy serving of them with each spoonful. But your question, is Dannon's Activia more effective in providing these results than regular good old-fashioned yogurt, is one that begs a good answer. Dannon (of course) says yes. Their Activia yogurt contains Bifidus regularis, a probiotic strain trademarked by Dannon that is not in other yogurts, and they claim that this particular strain speeds wastes through the digestive system and improves immunity in the intestines more effectively than other strains.
Dannon says that their Bifidus regularis, "survives passage through the digestive tract, arriving in the colon as a living culture," whereas other cultures can be destroyed by stomach acids and the natural process of digestion. The consumer reports lab has confirmed Dannon's claim, reporting that about three million of the original three billion probiotic organisms in a four-ounce serving of Activia made it through the stomach to the colon.
There is one other difference you mentioned between this yogurt and the others: the price. Activia typically costs more per ounce than regular Dannon yogurt. There are also other brands on the market that offer yogurts containing probiotics that are similar to those in Activia. If you're willing to spoon out the extra cash for yogurts with these particular probiotics and have noticed a decrease in stomach grumblings as a result, it seems like it working for you and might be worth it. However, now that you know that all yogurts contain healthy amounts of probiotics, it might be interesting to see if those regular yogurts feel just as good as the one with all the advertising. Eat up!
The symptoms you describe sound like what many people call the "food coma." Sometimes, after eating a holiday meal, a big dinner or lunch, or even sometimes after meals that didn't seem that big, you may feel a bit drowsy. Some medical conditions can cause this feeling, including anemia, kidney dysfunction, sleep disorders, infections, or an electrolyte imbalance just to name a few. But even people who don't have any of these medical conditions may still feel tired after eating, because this symptom is also a consequence of normal digestion!
Why? Because our bodies spend a lot of energy digesting food. The stomach mechanically churns the food, produces acid to break the food into tiny pieces, and then controls the rate this broken down food can enter the intestines. In the intestines, enzymes use energy to further break down and absorb food particles into the body. For humans, it is normal for the rate of energy use to increase by 25 to 50 percent after a meal. This increased bodily activity could contribute to your feeling flushed after eating.
One explanation for your drowsiness lies in one of the hormones released during digestion — cholecystokinin. Commonly referred to as CCK, this hormone helps make you feel full, but also activates the areas in the brain associated with sleep. So after eating, when CCK levels rise to tell you you're full, you may also start to feel sleepy. Additionally, meals high in carbohydrates can increase the levels of tryptophan (an amino acid) in the blood. In the brain, tryptophan is converted into serotonin (a neurotransmitter that makes people feel both happy and sleepy). This boost in serotonin could also cause someone to feel tired.
Since you don't feel tired after every meal, you may want to keep a food journal to see what types of food have you craving a post-lunch nap. If carbohydrate-rich or heavy foods like pizza, pasta, or panini slow you down, you could opt for a salad, soup, or sushi on days when you have a lot of work to do in the afternoon. You could also try eating several smaller meals throughout the day, rather than a big lunch, to avoid overwhelming your digestive system.
Feeling tired after eating is a common experience, and not necessarily linked to a medical condition. However, if you feel your symptoms may be related to a medical problem, it's always a good idea to visit your health care provider, especially if your fatigue begins to seriously impair your ability to get your work done. Students at Columbia can contact Medical Services (Morningside campus) or the Student Health Services (CUMC).
Best of luck in staying alert during your post-meal endeavors,
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.
Dear Perplexed by protein,
You're not alone — this can be a confusing subject. First some clarification — a complete protein is a protein that contains all nine essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein, which can only be obtained through eating food). Complete proteins come from animal-based products (meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, fish, etc), soy, and quinoa (a grain). An incomplete protein contains fewer than all nine essential amino acids, however incomplete proteins can be combined in meals to make a complete protein (for example by combining rice and beans or peanut butter and toast). These foods don't need to be eaten at the same time in order to be used by the body to build protein, as once was thought. We just need to eat these complementary proteins within 24 hours. Incomplete proteins come from plant-based foods, such as beans, rice, grains, legumes (other than soy), and vegetables.
Our bodies use amino acids from foods to make proteins. As a matter of fact, the amazing human body manufactures all types of substances — from hormones to muscle tissue, blood cells, enzymes, hair, nails, and many others — given the right proportions of amino acids.
All of the foods you mention contain amino acids, and therefore varying amounts of protein. Just because they don't contain all of the amino acids we need doesn't negate the fact that they contain some protein.
Although protein is a vital nutrient, our bodies don't require quite as much as you may think. The U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of protein is 0.8 grams/kg per day for adults. This recommendation has been shown to meet the needs of 97.5 percent of the population. For a woman weighing 125 lbs (57 kg), her needs would be met with an intake of 46 grams of protein per day. For a man weighing 154 lbs. (70 kg), his needs would be met with 56 grams of protein a day. A person must be taking in sufficient calories to maintain their weight for these values. Dieters need larger amounts of protein, because some is burned for energy. Athletes require slightly more protein as well.
It's believed that people usually eat a variety of foods, thereby getting the amino acids needed to manufacture complete proteins. Granted, if a person only ate bread, s/he would be missing an essential amino acid. The same would be true if a person only ate vegetables. However, if these vegetarians added legumes to their diet, they would be able to obtain all of the essential amino acids needed to remain healthy. The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences (which sets the RDAs) spell out the amount of each essential amino acid needed to form complete proteins. However, it isn't necessary to go that far, as long as you are covering your protein needs with a varied eating plan.
To determine your protein needs according to the RDA, divide your body weight in pounds by 2.2, which gives you your weight in kilograms, and then multiply that number by 0.8. Consult the following charts for protein content in various foods. Adjust for the serving size and the number of servings you actually eat.
|Animal Sources of Protein||Serving Size||Protein (in grams)|
|Cottage cheese||½ cup||14|
|Egg white only||1||3|
|Plant sources of Protein||Serving Size||Protein (in grams)|
|Tofu, raw, firm||3 oz.||13|
|Legumes: (Black beans, Kidney beans, Chickpeas, etc.)||½ cup||7 – 8|
|Peanut butter||2 T.||8|
|Bread||1 oz. (1 slice)||3|
|Vegetables||½ cup cooked or 1 cup raw||3|
|Pasta or rice||½ cup||3|
So, as you can see, it's not difficult to reach your daily protein needs, as long as you include a variety of foods in your daily intake. Incomplete proteins needn't be too much of a concern. Vegetarians who consume complementary proteins are usually able to easily meet their protein requirements. Columbia students who would like more information can meet with a Registered Dietitian who can provide individual counseling and help students understand and meet their unique nutrition needs. If you're interested in learning more about healthy eating habits for yourself, please schedule an appointment. Students on the Morningside campus can contact Medical Services for an appointment and students on the CUMC campus can also schedule an appointment with a Registered Dietitian.
Canola oil comes from a hybrid plant developed in Canada during the late 1960s to early 1970s using traditional pedigree hybrid propagation techniques (not genetically modified) involving black mustard, leaf mustard, and turnip rapeseed. The original rapeseed plant was high in erucic acid, which is an unpalatable fatty acid having negative health effects in high concentrations. Canola oil contains less than 1 percent erucic acid. In fact, another name for canola oil is LEAR (Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed) oil.
Your confusion about canola oil's safety is understandable. While the Internet can be a great source of information, many rumors and urban legends have circulated on web sites and been passed along in e-mails. Urban legends usually warn of dire consequences from something perfectly innocent; they often relate a story about someone who had such a terrible experience with something, yet that person almost always remains anonymous. These often frightening stories or accusations usually lack enough detail to make scientific, logical evaluation of the claim. The scare tactics of canola oil fit into this scenario.
Some of the information circulating on the Internet states that canola oil causes endless maladies: joint pain, swelling, gum disease, constipation, hearing loss, heart disease, hair loss... the list goes on and on. Canola oil has undergone years of extensive testing to assure its safety. In truth, canola oil contains essential fatty acids that our bodies need and cannot make on their own. Over 90 percent of the fatty acids present is the long chain unsaturated variety that has been proven beneficial to health.
It has also been claimed that canola oil is used in making mustard gas, a poison. This is totally untrue. Actually, mustard gas doesn't even come from the mustard plant; it was so named because it smells similar to mustard. Canola oil has allegedly been used as an industrial lubricant and ingredient in fuels, soaps, paints, etc. The truth is that many vegetable oils, such as corn, soybean, and flax, are also used in these applications. That doesn't make those oils unhealthy or dangerous. Canola oil has also been accused of killing insects, such as aphids. Again, all other oils can do the same, not by poisoning insects, but by suffocating them.
In China, rapeseed oil cooked at very high temperatures was found to give off toxic emissions. In the U.S., the combination of refined oils, added antioxidants, and lower cooking temperatures prevents this from occurring. In China, the oil contains contaminants, is not refined, and has no antioxidants. Some people have blamed the Canadians for paying the United States government to have canola oil added to its GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) list. There is absolutely no evidence of this.
As you can see, misinformation can be used to scare people. Good thing you knew where to turn! For more information on canola oil, you can check out the Canola Council of Canada web site.
Going off to college opens many opportunities for learning — in this case, how to make healthy food choices on your own. Relatively balanced meals, possibly planned by parents who were watching out for their childrens' health, are replaced by a smorgasbord of dining hall offerings. And while the "First-Year 15" are largely a myth (most college students don't gain 15 pounds, or any weight, during their first year), having unlimited access to a variety of foods the first year of college is a new challenge for many students.
The foods that you mention — pizza, Chinese food, and tacos — are not inherently unhealthy. Each contains foods from important food groups and provides energy that will fuel your brain during long study sessions. Sometimes these foods are prepared in such a way that they are high in fat, which is a nutrient that helps us to feel full, but also provides extra calories. These foods can be part of a filling and balanced meal, but only if they share the plate with side dishes that are low in fat, high in fiber, and nutrient dense.
One easy tip for healthy "all you care to eat" dining: When you place food on your lunch or dinner plate, make sure half the plate is filled with different colored steamed, grilled, broiled, or raw vegetables. One fourth of the plate should contain lean proteins, such as beans, grilled skinless chicken, or baked skinless fish. The remaining fourth of the plate can hold whole grains, such as 100 percent whole wheat bread or brown rice. For example, in order to balance a plate that includes pizza, choose one slice with chicken and veggies on whole wheat crust (if available) and fill the rest of your plate with a salad. Or on taco night, grab one taco with the meaty, cheesy, or beany filling of your choice and fill up the rest of your plate with steamed or grilled veggies and brown rice. For flavor fiends, look around for condiments like hot sauce, mustard, fresh salsa, and other seasonings. More information on dividing up your plate can be found on the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) MyPlate website.
If you find yourself stuffed after a dining hall meal, here's another tip: Fill only one plate and don't go back for seconds. You could even skip using a tray, to avoid filling too many plates and grabbing too many calorie-rich beverages. If you're still hungry after letting your food settle, grab some fruit; high in fiber and deliciously sweet, fruit can be a filling and satisfying second course. Making regular meals of a plate full of fruit, veggies, lean protein, and whole grains can fill and satisfy, and leave plenty of wiggle room for the occasional treat, such as french fries or ice cream.
Depending on the layout of your dining hall, you may need to poke around to find the healthiest options, but it's likely there are plenty of grilled, steamed, baked, or broiled veggies and proteins and whole grain carbs to fill your plate. Healthy dining options to look out for include:
- A salad bar
- Whole grain bread and/or bagels near the toaster
- Entree options without any breading
- Cooked veggies without any batter or heavy sauces
- Broth-based soups (rather than cream-based)
- Low-fat milk or yogurt for cereal or granola
- Whole pieces of fruit or fresh fruit salad
- Seltzer water or diet soda from the soda machines
- A choice in plate, bowl, and cup size
For recommendations tailored to individual dietary needs, food experiences, and taste preferences, you can meet with a registered dietitian. Columbia students can make an appointment by contacting Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC). The staff at the dining hall are also a great resource, as they are familiar with the menus. They may be able to answer your questions regarding foods that are prepared in a healthier manner, and the concerns of other students trying to eat a balanced diet.
Without knowing your health history or your lifestyle habits, it is difficult to know which one of the many possible physiological explanations is the cause of your headaches. However, research has shown that there is a significant connection between food, or lack thereof, and headaches and migraines. Some common reasons why people get headaches from skipping meals are:
Hypoglycemia —This basically means low blood sugar. By skipping a meal your blood sugar levels may drop to a level that causes your body to release hormones that are compensating for depleted glucose levels, this in turn can cause an increase in blood pressure and can narrow your arteries. The result can be headaches and migraines.
Dehydration — Not drinking enough fluids can cause the constriction of the meninges, which are thin layers, or several thin layers, of tissue that line your brain and spinal cord. They constrict from lack of hydration, and because the meninges have pain receptors, this causes headaches. This is often what happens after a long night of drinking and is also known as the morning after hang over.
Caffeine — This is a common stimulant that has been linked to headaches. Going through caffeine withdrawals can cause your arteries to dilate and can create an excessive blood flow to the head, and you guessed it, can cause headaches.
You can prevent or combat the causes of these headaches by drinking lots and lots of water (it does a body good), eating smaller meals 4 to 6 times a day, and moderating your intake of caffeine. If you're often too busy to sit down for a meal, you may want to try carrying around snacks with you to hold you over until you're able to have something more substantive. In addition to snacks, having a refillable bottle for water makes it more convenient to stay hydrated and saves you money since you won't have to buy bottled water.
What it comes down to is this — your body is telling you something when you skip meals. You may want to try out the suggestions listed above and see if the frequency of headaches decreases. You may not only prevent the onset of headaches, but also find that you feel more energetic and healthy overall.