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The Realities of Sugar

In Nutrition Basics, Trends, Weight Loss on July 26, 2011 at 8:05 PM

Let’s settle the HFCS vs. table sugar debate once and for all, shall we?

Do you think foods made with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) will make you gain significantly more weight than those made with other forms of sugar?   This is what we were led to believe last year when results from a Princeton University study revealed that rats fed a HFCS solution developed more belly fat and higher blood triglycerides compared to those fed a sucrose (table sugar) solution.  Hmmm…  The study was apparently simulating our mounting obsession with sugary beverages, as HFCS is most commonly found in American-made soft drinks and juices.   Pepsi and Mountain Dew jumped all over this news and went as far as to introduce “throwback” formulations (from the early 70’s) containing “real sugar” instead of HFCS, in the hopes of increasing sales.  Whoopin’ Frickin’ Dew. (pun intended!)  This is really quite laughable.  Can we honestly believe that soda made with table sugar (sucrose) is healthier and will not affect our waistlines?   LOLOLOLOL  I’m falling out of my chair from laughing so hard.  People are so anxious to hear that their beloved junk foods are good for them that they will hop on any train that supports such nonsense.  Sorry, junk food junkies, but too much sugar of any kind is unhealthy, whether it comes from HFCS, corn syrup, ordinary table sugar (sucrose), honey, agave syrup or nectar, apple juice concentrate, brown sugar, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, fructose, glucose, dextrose, grape juice concentrate, maple syrup, molasses, raw sugar, Confectioner’s sugar, or beet sugar.   Many people have become so conscious of avoiding HFCS that they forget about avoiding all the other added sweeteners too.  If you eat more sugar calories than your body can burn off, you will gain weight, regardless of the source.  The debate is over. 

Let’s egg on the debate a little bit further, just for amusement’s sake…

So what do we do about all the non-soda foods that also contain HFCS, such as bread, cereal, granola bars, yogurt, ketchup, and baked goods?  I say, avoid them as much as possible.  Will avoiding all HFCS-containing foods put an end to our obesity crisis?   Absolutely not.  The pervasiveness of HFCS in our food supply certainly contributes to the problem, but added sugars in all forms are equally abundant and need to be limited if we want to control our waistlines.  Much of the paranoia seems to surround the “high fructose” part of HFCS.    Fructose is naturally abundant in honey and most varieties of fruit.  So frankly, we could also label these sources “high fructose”.  Then why aren’t we ranting about the need to avoid these natural sources of fructose as well?  Good question, eh?  Yes, HFCS is lab created and not “natural”.  HFCS is made from corn syrup that undergoes enzymatic processing, converting some of corn syrup’s glucose to fructose, that produces a sweeter tasting and more water-soluble product with higher levels of fructose than regular corn syrup.  Hence the name, “High Fructose Corn Syrup”. Food manufacters prefer to use HFCS over other forms of sugar, including regular corn syrup, as it is cheaper and the higher fructose content affords a softer texture to foods while maintaining moisture and freshness.   As a result of all the bad publicity, food manufacturers are now replacing HFCS with regular corn syrup, sucrose, and a whole bunch of other “natural” sugars, like those listed above.  Avoiding HFCS only to load up on “natural” corn syrup or cane sugar (sucrose) doesn’t make much sense. 

Sugar is sugar, and we as a population are addicted to it.   There is an abundance of evidence suggesting that added sugars, from sweetened beverages, coffee drinks, candy, chocolate, cakes, cookies, muffins, pies, ice cream, cereals, granola bars, etc., may raise the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, fatty liver disease, and gout.   Have an interest in preventing these formidable diseases?  Cutting back on all added sugars is one positive step towards doing so, whether it comes from evaporated cane juice, HFCS, honey, or agave syrup.   Sugar adds a lot of extra calories to foods, which most certainly can lead to weight gain.   Sugar is not evil, it just needs to be consumed in moderation.  As a country, we eat way too much junk food, period.  Fat or no fat.  Sugar or no sugar.  If we cut out the junk, we will shrink our waistlines, pure and simple. 

“Ooooh, but it’s an organic cookie made with brown rice syrup instead of sugar!  It must be good for me then, right?”  Oh my….I honestly hear this all the time.  A cookie that lists “brown rice syrup” in its ingredients still has added sugar and is most certainly not a health food.  Organic processed foods can be just as junky as the rest of them.  Don’t be fooled.   Become privy to a food’s sugar content by not only reading the grams of sugar per serving as listed on the Nutrition Facts label but by checking the ingredients list for those more misleading forms of sugar.  Unfortunately, at this point in time, there is no distinction between natural sugars and added sugars on the Nutrition facts panel, so you must rely on the ingredient list.  As a general rule of thumb, if a food contains little or no milk or fruit (which have natural sugars), then the ”Sugars” number on the package will let you know how much added sugar you are getting in each serving.  Don’t worry about the naturally occurring sugar in whole fruit, milk, and plain yogurt.  There is nothing wrong with getting some of these natural sugars. 

The greatest problem with added sugar is that it is a source of “empty” calories—essentially no nutritional value, regardless of it’s source.   Added sugars either crowd out healthy, nutritious foods (such as fruits, vegetables, lean protein, low-fat dairy, whole grains), or they make you gain weight if you eat too much of them in addition to healthy foods.  It is important to realize that most sugary foods are junk foods—high in sugar and calories, and low in nutrients.  Many are also packed with virtually worthless white flour (refined from wheat) and come in sizes not suitable for just one person watching his or her waistline.  The tempting “breakfast muffin” at Panera or Starbucks is essentially a large piece of cake, and certainly not the best way to start your day whether it is sweetened with sucrose, HFCS, or agave syrup.

Enough said…


The Truth About Whole Grains

In grocery shopping, Nutrition Basics on June 9, 2011 at 9:26 AM

I receive many inquiries regarding all the “whole grain” claims out there.  Are all whole grains good for you?  100% whole grain products are certainly known for a variety of health benefits—reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, as well as keeping our plumbing humming along.  But packaging can be very deceiving—phrases such as “made with whole grains”, “wheat”, “12-grain” or “multi-grain” don’t necessarily mean the product is a good source of whole grain.  A so-called “12-grain bread” may contain a little wheat, a little rye, a little corn, a little millet, a little spelt, a little oat, etc… but if all these grains are refined ones, what good does that do?  Look for whole grains to be the first ingredient, and watch out for whole grain junk foods, such as snacks, cookies, and even children’s cereals, that toss in just a pinch of whole grain and then brag about it on front of the package. Better yet, look for products that say “100% whole grain” (can be a single grain or multiple grains) to be sure you are getting the true whole grain benefit.  Also, pay attention to the ingredient listing.  Many so-called “high fiber” breads are not necessarily made from natural whole grains, but rather, include added fibers in the form of inulin, amylopectin, and other forms of “resistant starch”.  These added fibers do not count as whole grain.

Have you seen the new Whole Grain Stamp popping up on a variety of different food packages lately?  This stamp was developed by The Whole Grain Council, a consumer advocacy group dedicated to helping consumers identify whole grain foods.  With current healthy eating guidelines recommending we all consume at least 3 servings of whole grains each day, this is a useful little piece of information, provided you know what to do with it.  A food containing a  full serving worth of whole grains will contain 16 or more grams of whole grain, as identified on the stamp.  To get our three servings, this means we must shoot for at least 48 grams of whole grain per day.  It is smart to seek out foods with a stamp revealing the presence of at least 16 grams of whole grain.  (A food item containing 8 grams is considered a half serving.)  Using the stamp for comparing granola bars, breads, cereals, rice, pasta, frozen entrees, side dishes, pizza, snacks, and baked goods makes sense, but be aware that a cookie containing whole grains is still a junk food loaded with sugar, fat, and calories.  For example, the virtuous sounding Kashi TLC cookies bear a Whole Grain Stamp reporting 12 grams of whole grain per cookie (almost a full serving), but also contain 130 calories, 5 grams of fat, and 8 grams of sugar.  One cookie is all you get if you are watching your waistline.  Thinking you can eat two, three, or four of these cookies at one time, in the effort to get all your whole grain servings in one fell swoop, is simply ridiculous.  Plus, if you examine the ingredient list, you see a whole bunch of added, isolated fibers in the mix.  Granted, these “Tasty Little Cookies” are a BETTER choice than those made with all refined flours, but they are most certainly not a health food.

By reading the ingredient list for the presence of whole, natural grains as well as searching for stamps reflecting 16 grams or more of whole grain is the ideal way to learn which food products are better than others.  Food manufacturers claim all kinds of things in the effort to increase sales, but an informed consumer, such as yourself, can not be fooled!

Any other questions?  Feel free to ask!

Preventing Sugar Overload

In Holiday Eating Strategies, Nutrition Basics, Snacking on December 13, 2010 at 5:09 PM

Aaaahhhh.  The joys of Christmas:  tree trimming, card writing, gift giving, over-eating…and the inevitable sugar buzz!!!  Some of you may consider it cruel of me to broach this subject at a time of joyful indulgence…  Others may be glad for the friendly reminder to go easy with all the sweet treats of the season.   I have received a variety of questions from my readers regarding sugar intake over the past year, and thought it wise to summarize the answers in this special holiday edition 😉

Who can honestly afford the roughly 400 calories’ worth of added sugars that the typical American consumes each day?  Holidays or not, we as a population are addicted to sugar.  There is an abundance of evidence suggesting that added sugars, from sweetened beverages, coffee drinks, candy, chocolate, cakes, cookies, muffins, pies, ice cream, cereals, granola bars, etc., may raise the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and gout.   Have an interest in preventing these formidable diseases?  Cutting back on sugar is one positive step towards doing so!

Exactly what are added sugars, you ask?  They include high-fructose corn syrup, ordinary table sugar (sucrose), honey, agave syrup or nectar, apple juice concentrate, brown sugar, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, fructose, glucose, dextrose, grape juice concentrate, maple syrup, molasses, raw sugar, Confectioner’s sugar, and beet sugar.   High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has developed a negative reputation in the media over the past few years.  Many people have become so conscious of avoiding HFCS that they forget about avoiding all these other added sweeteners too!  Eating a granola bar that lists “brown rice syrup” on the ingredient list has added sugar. 

The greatest problem with added sugar is that it is a source of “empty” calories—essentially no nutritional value.  Added sugars either crowd out healthy, nutritious foods (such as fruits, vegetables, lean protein, low-fat dairy, whole grains), or they make you gain weight if you eat them in addition to healthy foods.  The American Heart Association suggests that a  typical woman should get no more than 100 calories (about 6 1/2 tsps or 25 grams) a day from added sugars, and typical man no more than 150 calories (about 9 1/2 tsps or 38 grams) per day.  Less than these recommendations is even better!!! 

To help you stay on top of your discretionary sugar intake, sugar content is quantitatively (in grams) provided on the Nutrition Facts label.  Unfortunately, at this point in time, there is no distinction between natural sugars and added sugars.  As a general rule of thumb, if a food contains little or no milk or fruit (which have natural sugars), then the “Sugars” number on the package will let you know how much added sugar you are getting in each serving.  (make sure to check the serving size at the top of the panel)  Don’t worry about the naturally occurring sugar in whole fruit, milk, and plain yogurt.

One sure-fire way to exceed the added sugar recommendations is to consume sugar-sweetened beverages.  Soft drinks are the number-one source of added sugar in the American diet.  Not only do liquid sugars contribute an exceptional amount of extra calories, they do not curb your appetite for more food.  Reasearch has shown that people do not compensate for liquid sugars by eating less solid food at meals and snacks, like one would if he or she ate the same number of calories from solid food.  (i.e. eating 100 calories worth of an orange will fill you up more than 100 calories worth of orange juice, allowing you to eat less food overall)  It’s not just soda pop either…beware of sports drinks (Gatorade, Powerade, Propel), energy drinks (Red Bull, Monster, Glaceau Vitamin Water), sweetened teas (SoBe, Lipton, Snapple, Arizona, Nestea, Tazo), fruit juice/drinks, coffee drinks, hot cocoa, egg nog, and alcoholic beverages containing sugars and juices (flavored martinis, after-dinner liqueurs, Daquiris, Pina Coladas, Margaritas, Mojitos).  The more nutritious 100% fruit juice, such as orange, grape, or grapefruit, should be limited to no more than 1 cup per day.

It is important to realize that most sugary foods are JUNK foods—high in sugar & calories, and low in nutrients.  Many are also packed with virtually worthless white flour (refined from wheat) and come in sizes not suitable for just one person watching his or her waistline.  That tempting “breakfast muffin” at Panera or Starbucks is essentially a large piece of cake.  Not the best way to start your day…

For the remainder of the holiday season, see if you can avoid drinking sugar-laden beverages in favor of diet soda, calorie-free flavored water (“Metromint” water is a new favorite of mine), and/or unsweetened coffee and tea as often as possible.  You can then cut down on the solid treats come January 😉

Here’s to a Happy New Year of good health and good eatin’!

How to Win the War on Sodium

In Nutrition Basics, Sodium on October 20, 2010 at 12:40 PM

Unless you have been living under a rock or in some remote cave over the past 10 years, you have likely heard that dietary sodium can raise your blood pressure.  High blood pressure, or hypertension, (defined as 140/90 mm Hg) can lead to a heart attack, stroke, and/or aneurysm of a major artery.  This is scary, as there are typically no symptoms that your blood pressure is running high and wrecking havoc on your cardiovascular system.  Since hypertension can suddenly sneak up on you at any age and time, it important to get your blood pressure checked regularly, and adopt heart-healthy lifestyle habits.  This holds true whether your blood pressure is normal, high, or well-controlled with medication at the present time.

Salt is found naturally in many foods, and in this age of extravagant food processing, extra salt is added to foods to perform specific functions—such as preservation, flavoring, or leavening.  You have likely seen or heard the words “salt” and “sodium” used interchangeably in nutrition-based recommendations.  What’s the difference?   Our every day “table salt”, whether it is sea salt, Kosher salt, or Morton’s refined salt, is 70% sodium, and 30% chloride.  It is the sodium component in salt that raises blood pressure.  Sodium is an essential nutrient for maintaining water balance in the body: sodium coming in or out, requires water to move in or out, and vice versa.  An example of this occurs when we sweat–your skin releases water to help cool the outside of your body–sweat will always contain sodium to help balance this water loss.    Another example is the development of thirst while eating salty foods.  As sodium is taken in through food, your thirst response encourages you to take in water to balance the excess sodium.  If you ignore your thirst, your body will compensate by pushing sodium and water out of your blood vessels into extracellular space (such as your belly or legs) resulting in “bloating” or “water retention”.   Bloating is a sign of a water/sodium imbalance.  The key to stopping the bloat is drinking more water or cutting down on sodium.  My suggestion is to do both.

To help maintain a proper water balance in your body, you need to take in 500 mg of sodium from foods every day.  Obtaining this small amount from foods is very easy.  The problem arises from getting too much sodium, such that your blood volume expands, putting excessive strain on your heart to pump the larger blood volume throughout the body.   As you age, arteries can harden, making the pressure rise even higher.  Research has proven time and again that the biggest predictor of heart attacks and strokes is high blood pressure. 

In recent years, the Institute of Medicine has asked the FDA (US Food and Drug Adminstration) to crack down on added salt in foods.  The current government recommendations has the maximum daily intake for sodium set at 2300 mg.  I am happy to report that the new federal “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”, to be released at the end of 2010, will slash sodium to a max of only 1500 mg per day.  This will be quite the challenge for most Americans, but not impossible. 

The Center for Disease Control, based in Atlanta, has estimated that 77% of dietary sodium comes from processed foods and restaurant items.  No surprise there.  Americans average 3466 mg of sodium a day–the equivalent of about 1 1/2 tsp of salt.  The CDC’s analysis revealed five categories of food that contribute the most sodium to our diets, which might really surprise you:

1.  Grain mixtures, frozen meals, and soups contribute about 530 mg of sodium per day to the typical American’s diet.  Grains are no longer healthy when they are in the form of pizza, burritos, tacos, egg rolls, prepackaged pasta dishes, and frozen dinners.

2.  Ham, bacon, sausage, and other highly processed lunch meat contribute about 425 mg sodium per day.

3.  Meat, poultry, and fish mixtures contribute about 285 mg sodium per day.  It is not the meat itself, but what we add to it.  Most seasoning mixes and marinades are loaded with sodium.  Perdue and Tyson pre-packaged meats are often bathing in a salt solution.  Who knew???

4.  Regular sandwich bread contributes 355 mg of sodium to the typical American diet.  The more bread you eat, the more sodium you get.

5.  Cakes, cookies, and crackers contribute about 230 mg sodium per day.  Yes, salted crackers are obvious….but did you know baking soda’s chemical name is sodium bicarbonate??

How can you avoid some of these high-sodium traps?  Look at the food labels.  A low sodium food, by definition, will contain less that 140 mg of sodium per serving.  Have you checked your Cheerios box lately?  220 mg of sodium for 3/4 cup of cereal is not exactly the “heart healthy” breakfast choice we imagined now, eh??  Avoiding cured, corned, pickled, salted, smoked foods, and fast foods from McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and Taco Bell may seem obvious…however, it is crucial to keep a watchful eye on “innocent” sounding foods, such as whole grain cereals, breads, lean lunch meats, low-fat cheese, and low-fat baked goods.

To combat or prevent high blood pressure, you can also follow the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet.  This plan focuses on eating whole foods, with very few processed items.  Focus on vegetables, fruits, unprocessed whole grains, low-fat and fat-free dairy foods, legumes, nuts and seeds, and small amounts of unprocessed animal protein, such as chicken, fish, and eggs.  If you focus on eating mostly the above mentioned foods, you simply don’t have room on your plate for as much salty, processed food.  I encourage you to look up the specifics of the DASH diet online if you are truly interested in following such a plan to help manage your blood pressure and reduce your sodium intake.

Unfortunately, most previous public-education campaigns to reduce salt intake have failed, but I have high hopes for this current effort.   The government is finally putting pressure on food processors and restaurants to ratchet back on salt content.  The plan is to regulate the amount of salt added to foods and gradually roll back that limit as the industry and consumer taste buds adjust.  HOORAY 😉

Falling For Sweet Potatoes

In Managing cholesterol, Meal Ideas, Nutrition Basics on October 6, 2010 at 4:58 PM

Let’s answer your burning question first: “Is that a yam or a sweet potato”???  Traditionally, it depends on the skin and flesh color.  Scientifically, they are one in the same.  The true, traditional ‘sweet potato’ is tan on the outside with a creamy yellow interior.  The more common form of sweet potato found in markets across the US is copper-skinned, with deep orange flesh, and is often sold as a “yam”.  The yam is botanically a sweet potato. 

Are you interested in adding a nice splash of color and robust flavor to your fall dinner plate?  With autumn in full swing, a variety of nutritous, flavorful, yellow-orange vegetables have come into season:  sweet potatoes (ahem…or yams), acorn squash, pumpkin.  YUM.  A word of caution:  adding butter, sugar, and marshmallows to your sweet potato spoils the nutritional benefit—just like turning pumpkin into pumpkin pie—vitamins are still there, but so are loads of calories, fat, and sugar—demoting good-for-you vegetables to bad-boy dessert status.

Here are some impressive stats on a plain ol’ sweet potato:

90 calories per half cup (half baseball size) or 180 calories per cup (small fist size)

7 grams of fiber per cup:  this helps fill you up and makes your blood sugar rise more slowly–helping to prevent carb cravings a couple of hours later.  Some of this fiber is “soluble”, which helps lower cholesterol much the same way as oatmeal.  (fyi:  white potatoes have only 2 grams of fiber per cup)

950 mg of potassium per cup:  potassium helps regulate your blood pressure

38433 IUs of Vitamin A per cup:  this comes in the form of beta-carotene—a key nutrient for vision and immune health.  Remember mom telling you to eat your carrots because they are “good for your eyes”?  Well, she was right.  And the same goes for the sweet potato.

Chock-full of carotenoids:  the rich orange color indicates a high concentration of these cancer fighting phytochemicals, such as beta-carotene as mentioned above.  Another one, called lutein, helps protect against age-related macular regeneration—another boost for your peepers!

Fat free: to help keep them this way, try adding spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and/or ginger, as well as apples, olive oil, or nuts (pecans), instead of the butter, sugar, and/or marshmallows.

Sweet potatoes are very versatile and can be boiled and mashed; baked whole or cut up as “fries” in the oven; sliced and cooked in a skillet; etc.   Whatever you would do with a white potato, you can do with a sweet potato.

Try one tonight!


Mind Your Vitamin D, Please!

In Nutrition Basics, Vitamins of interest on September 7, 2010 at 4:19 PM

Vitamin D is the all-star nutrient of 2010.   Most folks are already aware that getting enough calcium and vitamin D, through food and/or supplements, helps prevent osteoporosis.  Over the past few years, well-designed research studies have discovered additional health benefits for this vivacious vitamin, to include the prevention of cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disease, and even depression.   In response to all this convincing evidence, health agencies have questioned their previous guidelines for vitamin D intake, and plan to enlighten the public with their new recommendations very soon.   To aid your interpretation of these new intake guidelines,  I would like to review what is known about vitamin D up to this point and offer some suggestions to you.  In my professional opinion, most people would gain health benefits from minding their vitamin D intake.

1.  Vitamin D comes in two forms:  Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol), which is produced by plants, and vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol), which is produced by select animals and human skin.   Your skin can produce vitamin D upon exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun, specifically, UVB rays.  Sunscreens with an SPF of 8 or higher will hinder this process.

2.  Vitamin D is found naturally in very FEW foods, such as some fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel), egg yolks, and cod liver oil.

3. Foods such as cow’s milk, soy milk, rice milk, almond milk, yogurt, and orange juice, may be fortified with either vitamin D2 or D3.  Vegan foods, derived solely by plant sources, will contain the D2 variety.  However, D3 is more easily absorbed and used by the body, so if you are not a Vegan, consider fortified foods containing the D3 form of the vitamin.

4.  Vitamin D is included in most multivitamins and calcium supplements in concentrations of 50 IU to 1000 IU (international units).  As I write this, adequate intake recommendations for select individuals and age groups are being revised.  Currently, the daily upper tolerable limit is 2000 IU per day.  Based on the latest research, it is quite possible this upper level will be increased to 10,000 IU per day…  If you do take an oral supplement containing vitamin D, take it with your largest meal, as this allows for better absorption.  (FYI:  5 mcg=200 IU, in case your supplement reports micrograms instead of International Units)

5.  It has been found that many Americans have less than adequate blood levels of vitamin D.  The people most at risk for developing a vitamin D deficiency include people over age 55 (reduced ability to produce vitamin D from skin), people with limited sun exposure (such as the homebound or those living above the 42 degree N latitude), people with dark skin (melanin pigment inhibits vitamin D production upon sun exposure), and obese individuals (the vitamin is stored in fat cells and not released properly into circulation).

6.  Vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium, helping to form and maintain strong bones.  A vitamin D deficiency can lead to weak bones as well as muscle weakness.

7.  More recently, Vitamin D has been found to enhance neuromuscular and immune function, and reduce inflammation throughout the body.  This action may provide protection against diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS), rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus.  The research has revealed that people with higher vitamin D levels are less prone to such inflammatory, autoimmune illness.

8.  Vitamin D may also protect against both Type 1 diabetes (by decreasing inflammation and the autoimmune process) and Type 2 diabetes (by improving insulin sensitivity).  Research has shown that rates of both types of diabetes are lower in areas with greater amounts of sunlight and consumption of vitamin D rich fish. 

9. Vitamin D may prevent cancer by suppressing cell growth and blood-vessel formation that feed the tumor.  The research so far has been strongest for colorectal cancer, where subjects with higher blood levels of vitamin D were half as likely to develop the disease than those with lower levels.  In my opinion, it is still premature to advise the use of vitamin D supplements for the prevention of cancer.

10.  A heart attack may also be thrwarted by having adequate vitamin D circulating in your system.  Some research trials have shown that men with low levels of vitamin D (below 30 ng/mL) were twice as likely to have a heart attack than those with higher levels.  The same is true for high blood pressure.  At this point, it is believed that vitamin D may control the release of stress hormones that lead to high blood pressure and inflammation.

11.  Sunlight has long been known as a way to ward off Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, a form of mild depression, that commonly strikes individuals living at northern latitudes during the winter months.  Sunlight promotes the release of serotonin, a mood-boosting hormone, lessening the symptoms of depression.  Therefore, it could also stand to reason that exposure to sunlight, and the resulting vitamin D production, may play a role in mood enhancement as well….we will have to wait and see where the research takes us on this one.

Now for the big question:  how do you know if you are getting enough Vitamin D?  Ask your doctor for a simple blood test.  The desirable blood level for overall health and disease prevention is > 30 ng/mL.   Levels below 15 ng/mL should instill immediate action in the form of supplementation.  Most often, this will require taking a 1000 IU or 2000 IU vitamin D3 pill daily.  Some doctors will prescribe “megadosing” for very low levels, which would entail taking 50,000 IU once a week for 8 weeks.  In this case, the excess is stored in body tissues and used as needed to maintain levels.

Other things you can do to keep your vitamin D levels up:

-expose your face and arms to direct sunlight (without sunscreen) for about 10 minutes 2x/week between 10AM-3PM

-Eat foods containing vitamin D:  3 oz sockeye salmon has about 800 IU; 3 oz. canned tuna 154 IU; 8 oz. of fortified milk, orange juice, or yogurt 100 IU; egg yolk 25 IU.  I suggest avoiding cod liver oil for a variety of reasons, but it does contain 1360 IU of vitamin D per tablespoon, should your levels be really, really low.

Should you have any questions once the new guidelines come out, please don’t hesitate to ask.  I am here to help you live a healthy, happy life 😉


Creative Ways to Add More Fruits and Veggies

In Nutrition Basics on April 6, 2010 at 2:39 PM

If you stay up with nutrition headlines, you have likely heard the latest  “Healthy People 2010” recommendations, which include eating 9-10 servings of vegetables and fruit a day.  For the average American, who consumes only 3 servings on a “good” day, that may seem like an unrealistic expectation.  The encouraging news is that serving sizes are small:  a mere 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw or leafy vegetables; or 1 cup fruit (melon, berries, grapes) or one tennis-ball sized piece of fruit.  Each serving of plain, non-starchy vegetables contains 25 calories while a serving of fruit contains between 60-80 calories, depending on the variety.  Starchy vegetables, such as corn, peas, lima beans, and potatoes,contain 75-100 calories per serving. 

What is so wonderful about eating raw leafy greens, above and beyond the nutritional advantages such as extra  potassium, folate, and iron, is that you can eat 4 whole cups for only 100 calories!  That will surely fill your belly up nicely on a minimum number of calories—you get into trouble by making “fancy” salads with non-veggie ingredients such as cheese, nuts, dried fruits, croutons, bacon bits, egg, and dressing.  But a plain, old-fashioned “garden” salad is a great low-calorie way to fill up, increasing the likelihood that you will eat less of higher calorie foods at the same meal.

Here are some easy suggestions for upping your intake of fruits and vegetables:

1.  Buy fresh fruits in season when they are less expensive and at their peak flavor.   Buy smaller amounts of fruits that spoil quickly, such as berries, bananas, plums, melon, and grapes, to eat up first, and then stock up on fruits that last for several weeks under refridgeration, such as apples, oranges, grapefruit, and kiwi.  The number one excuse I hear from clients regarding their lack of fresh produce is that “it goes bad before I get the chance to eat it”.  The solution is to stop buying so much at one time and commit to eating what you purchase on a regular basis.  Having frozen and dried fruit available at home can allow you to continue the fruit habit in-between trips to the store.

2.  At breakfast, top cereal with fruit or mix fruit with low-fat or fat-free yogurt.

3.  For dessert, have baked apples, pears, or a fruit salad with cinnamon or a dallop of light whip cream on top.  For a cool, refreshing mid-summer treat, try a cup of frozen grapes.

4.  As a snack, spread peanut butter on apple or banana slices or top frozen yogurt with berries or slices of kiwi.  If you have a long day planned, pack a whole piece of fruit with you for a quick, on-the-go “pick me up”.

5.  Make an 8 oz. fruit smoothie by blending fat free milk or yogurt with fresh or frozen berries, bananas, or peaches.

6.  Try applesauce as a fat-free substitute for some of the oil when baking cakes or bars.

7.  Include a green salad with your dinner every night.  Add color with baby carrots, shredded red cabbage, red tomatoes or peppers.  Go light on the dressing.

8.  Shred carrots or zucchini into meatloaf, casseroles, quick breads, and muffins.

9.  Include chopped vegetables in pasta sauce or lasagna.

10.   Include some vegetables at lunch every day.  For crunch alongside a sandwich, include a side of baby carrots, cucumber slices, celery, bell peppers, or snap peas.

11.  Add peas or chopped broccoli to rice side dishes.

12.  Add a cup of vegetable  or bean- based soup as a starter for lunch or dinner.  Or, make a large pot of homemade soup on the weekend to reheat for quick meals during the week.

13.  Make or order veggie egg-white omelets for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.  Substitute sliced tomatoes or a cup of fruit for hash browns.

With the inticing summer fruit season ahead, many folks complain of frustration over the proper selection and storage requirements for the plethora of fruits available during these months.  For some, it can be so overwhelming that they simply don’t buy much variety or shy away from trying something new in order to avoid wasting time and money on over- or under-ripened fruit.  In a follow-up posting, I will outline what to look for, how to store, and other tips to make your summer fruit buying experience a success 😉

Essential Supplements

In Nutrition Basics, Vitamins of interest on February 10, 2010 at 10:00 PM

The best way to get all the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients you need is through eating a balanced, wholesome diet including all of the major food groups:  whole grains, fruit, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and protein from both plant (beans, nuts) and animal (meat, eggs) sources.  If you completely exclude any one of these groups for personal or religious reasons, you risk become deficient in a number of essential nutrients.  Therefore, it is important to determine if you should be taking a supplement or two.

What does a daily balanced diet look like, you ask?

-six servings of grains from bread, cereal, rice, pasta, etc.  Ideally, at least 3 of these servings should be from 100% whole grains—one serving equals a slice of bread, 1/2 cup pasta or rice, 1 oz. cereal.   And guess what popcorn lovers???  Three cups of popcorn counts as a serving of whole grain!  (just make sure you don’t minimize the health benefits by piling on too much salt and butter…)

-two to three servings of fruit–one serving would be a medium piece of fruit (size of tennis ball), 1/2 cup of berries or chopped melon, or 6 oz. of 100% fruit juice

-three to five servings of vegetables (more would be even better)—one serving equals 1 cup of raw, leafy vegetables (like salad) or 1/2 cup cooked or chopped vegetables.

-two to three servings of dairy foods such as milk, yogurt, and cheese—one serving is 1 cup milk/yogurt or 1 1/2 ounces of natural cheese.

-two to three servings of lean meat, poultry, fish, dry beans (lentils, black, kidney, etc…), eggs, or nuts—one serving equals 2-3 oz. meat (size of deck of cards).   One egg, 1/4 cup cottage cheese, 1/4 cup tuna, 1/2 cup cooked beans, 1 oz. nuts, or 2 Tbsp. peanut butter count as 1 oz. of meat.

Even if you try to eat all the major food groups regularly, you may still fall short if:

1.  your hectic lifestyle frequently keeps you from eating the recommended number of servings from each food group

2.  you are on a very low calorie weight loss diet (less than 1200 calories)

3.  you are elderly and not eating as much as you should

4.  you are a strict vegetarian, or vegan, who does not consume any animal products at all

5.  you are “lactose intolerant” and can’t drink milk or eat cheese & yogurt

6.  you are a woman of childbearing age who doesn’t get enough folate from fruits, vegetables, beans, and grains

7.  you are a “creature of habit” or a self-proclaimed “picky eater” who eats the same kinds of foods every day  (variety increases diet quality)

8.  you skip breakfast or lunch on a regular basis

It is probably safe to assume that most people do not eat the optimal amount of nutrients on a regular basis, and therefore, would benefit from taking a daily multivitamin.  It is wise for a pre-menopausal woman to take one containing iron.  Men and post-menopausal women should take a multi without iron—such as a “men’s formula” or “senior/silver” vitamin.   Most women should also take a separate calcium + vitamin D supplement to prevent bone loss–Calcium citrate formulations are most easily absorbed. Vitamin D is the “vitamin of the decade” and is now recommended for both men and women to prevent a variety of conditions above and beyond osteoporosis.  People who live in northern climates often are deficient in vitamin D due to limited sun exposure–our skin is capable of manufacturing this nutrient in response to ultaviolet light.  It is important to note that sunscreen inhibits this process, so if you live in a sunny climate but wear SPF religiously, you may need extra vitamin D supplementation as well.

The moral of the story?  Take a daily multivitamin–it doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just your basic “Centrum” or “One a Day” or generic store equivalent, tailored specifically for women, men, or seniors.  You should probably also add calcium citrate with Vitamin D—500-1500 mg calcium/day depending on whether or not you consume any dairy products or other calcium-fortified foods.  Adding a separate 1000 IU vitamin D if you live in northern latitudes(above the Mason-Dixon line) may benefit you as well. 

FYI:  Despite being a dietitian, I do not consume the recommended number of servings from all the major food groups on a regular basis either.  I take a daily women’s multi which has 800 IU of vitamin D and 450 mg calcium—and then supplement that with an extra 600 mg calcium and 400 IU vitamin D in a combined pill.  That way, I am getting the recommended 1000 IU vitamin D for northern latitude inhabitants and 1000 mg calcium for pre-menopausal women.  I also eat 1-2 dairy servings per day, which provides and extra 300-500 mg calcium for my bones 😉 

These are the only supplements I can comfortably recommend to the general population.  There are plenty of other supplements on the market that can be helpful in a given situation, but I cannot make such generalizations here without examining your individual food intake, lifestyle habits, etc.

Reading Food Labels

In Nutrition Basics on January 14, 2010 at 10:11 AM

Food Labels are soooooooooo confuuuuuusssssiiiinnnggg!

Many of you have asked how to properly interpret “all the gibberish” on a food label.  While specific numbers are directly related to individual health concerns (i.e. weight control, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes),  the nutritional breakdown is of value to anyone who wants to ensure “healthy” choices.   All packaged, nationally-branded foods are required by law to include the “Nutrition Facts” panel.   Unfortunately, many of these boxed,  processed foods tend to be a tangle of hydrogenated fat, sugar, sodium, and white flour…  So how the heck do we weed out the good stuff????

I realize the content of food labels makes for less than exciting reading material.  However, I have received so many individual questions regarding their content, this tedious topic needs to be addressed…believe me—it is as painful blogging about it as it is for you reading about it!  So bear with me and maybe you’ll gain some insight into the mysteries of food science…  (captivated now, aren’t ya???)

I am sharing the guidelines I use for the majority of my clients.  These recommendations are not intended to “treat” any particular disease, but simply provide a frame of reference as to which foods are going to be better choices than others.  You must read the serving size at the top of the panel to properly interpret the numbers.  If the package is small and you are likely to consume the whole thing, make sure you do the math for “servings per container”!  (i.e. eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is 4 servings!!!)

CALORIES:     women:  300-500 per meal;     100-150 per snack

men:  300-600 per meal;     100-200 per snack

A meal must contain a minimum of 300 calories to count at “breakfast”, “lunch” or “dinner”, no matter what your age, gender, activity level, size, appetite, etc…  Skipping a meal or underconsuming calories shuts down your metabolism rather than helping you lose weight.

Add healthy snacks if you have more than 4-5 hours between your main meals.  This will curb your appetite and keep you from overeating.

SATURATED FAT:  Consuming less than 15-18 grams per day is ideal for heart health and lowering cholesterol.  Select meats, cheeses, dairy products, and baked goods with the least amount possible.  Low fat and fat free options help keep your intake to a minimum.

AVOID TRANS FAT!!!!  This fat is also known as “partially or fully hydrogenated fat” and is found most often in processed and fried foods.  It clogs arteries, raises cholesterol, and is one of the WORST things you can put in your body. 

SODIUM: consuming less than 1800 mg per day is ideal for blood pressure and weight control purposes (high sodium intake leads to water retention).  Restaurant and processed foods tend to provide the majority of the added salt in our diets.  Most of your choices should be “low sodium” which by definition is < 140 mg/serving.  If buying a frozen entree, make a selection with less than 600 mg sodium.

BLAH BLAH BLAH…ARE WE DONE YET???     Ahhh, not quite…

CARBOHYDRATES:  most people LOVE their carbs—I am definitely one of them.  Few people can subsist on a “low carb” diet for a lifetime.  Therefore, it is of value to consume these in moderation to control weight as well as blood sugar.  Meals should not contain more than 45-60 grams of total carbohydate (starch & sugar) and snacks not more than 15-30 grams of carbohydrate.  Total carb includes fiber and sugar on the label.

SUGARS: the current label does not differentiate between natural and added sugars in a food product.  Any food containing fruit or milk will naturally contain sugar from fructose or lactose.  There is nothing wrong with getting some of your carbohydrates from natural sugars.  Limit or avoid added sugars as much as possible (check ingredient list for sugar, “fructose”, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, molasses, evaporated cane juice, honey).  The food label is currently being revised, and displaying the amount of natural sugars vs. added sugars is under consideration—FINALLY!!!  😀

FIBER:    It’s not just for grandmas anymore!!!   100% whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and dried beans will contain the most dietary fiber.  Aim for at least 25 grams of total fiber per day to help fill you up and keep the pipes running smoothly…

YOU MADE IT!!!  Now it is time to go through your pantry and face the reality of your food choices…he he he

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