Vita-Myth Busters

It’s time to address the realities behind Vita-Myths– those legends and lore surrounding *magic* vitamin supplements with tall claims, as well as misconceptions about the vitamins and minerals in our food. There’s a new trend of hyper-focused micronutrients blends capitalizing on our health goals. Some of them are chewy. Some of them are sugar-coated. Most of them are being touted by celebrities as the reason their hair is so darn shiny. Do we need vitamins and minerals? Absolutely. Are some of our beliefs about these vitamins and minerals missing the target? Probably.

 

Vita-Myth #1: There’s no such thing as too many vitamins!

The answer here is a resounding FALSE. Vitamins can either be water or fat soluble, which determined how your body stores them. While you can eliminate excess water soluble vitamins from your body easily (use your imagination), fat soluble ones get stored for the long haul and can actually be toxic in mega-doses. The ones to watch are vitamins A, D, E, and K. If you’re taking one or more supplements that contain these, make sure you’re not accidentally doubling up on doses or you risk storing far more than you need.

Vita-Myth #2: You don’t get any vitamins or minerals from meat.

Again- this one is false! Meat has such a mixed reputation in the nutrition medica world; people praise it as the ultimate protein source but also shun it due to the fat content of some cuts. Meat is actually one of the best sources of B vitamins as well as minerals like zinc and iron; our bodies actually absorb the iron from meat much more efficiently than iron from plants. It is also the only major source of vitamin B12 in the diet, so it is generally recommended that vegetarians and vegans take a supplement to avoid deficiency (Lack of B12 can cause nerve tingling, numbness, weakness, and fatigue). Overall, meat really is a nutritional powerhouse – so enjoy it! (In reasonable moderation, of course).

Vita-Myth #3: Vitamin-rich foods may decrease your chance of getting cancer.

This one has some truth behind it, and it all comes down to the science of free radicals and oxidation. ‘Free radicals’ was the hot buzz term a few years ago, and though we still know that it has a negative implication, most people don’t quite know the science supporting that.  The world around us is made of molecules or groups of atoms (as are we!), and unfortunately, certain molecules can damage others through their interactions. When an atom steals a little piece (an electron) from another molecules, it creates a ‘free radical.’ These are basically rogue atoms that will do whatever it takes to get a new replacement electron. In our bodies, free radicals go around aggressively stealing electrons from our cells, doing damage along the way and putting your cells at risk of abnormalities like cancer. Antioxidants, however, have the ability to stop these free radicals in their tracks so they can do no further damage. Vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene (a precursor of vitamin A) are the three most potent antioxidants, and they’re found very high concentrations in (you guessed it!) fruits and vegetables. It’s true what they say, kids – eat your fruits and veggies!

Vita-Myth #4: Only dairy has calcium.

My apologizes, cow friends… your milk is not the only place we can get our highly important calcium. The ‘Got Milk’ ads sure did their job, didn’t they? In reality, you can get calcium from a wide range of foods including leafy greens (kale, collard greens, bok choy, broccoli), boned fish like sardines, sesame seeds, almonds,  and a lot of fortified non-dairy alternatives like almond milk or even orange juice. Milk is one of the best sources, but eating a diet rich in these other foods can help you make up the difference if you aren’t a huge dairy-eater.

 

Now that we’ve cleared the air of some of the most common vitamin rumors, I’ll leave you with this: I do believe in vitamin supplements. If you eat a perfectly balanced diet, you may be eating the recommended amount of vitamins and minerals (aka the micronutrients), but unfortunately the standard American diet is not always rich in variety. There is not a large body of research supporting the benefits of supplementation (except for folic acid during pregnancy – that is directly correlated to lower rates of neural tube defects), but I do think that a general multivitamin is a good safety net for most people. Overall, the best way to get the bulk of your vitamins and minerals is through a well-rounded diet made up of foods from all food groups (surprise!)

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Does your plate look like MyPlate?

  
The Food Pyramid (1992-2005)

I remember learning about the Food Pyramid in elementary school, and for myself and most of my generation, that was the only formal nutrition education I received. Eat healthy, follow the food pyramid.  I had no idea, however, how I was supposed to apply a pyramid to my actual food choices. I recall celebrating the recommendation that carbohydrates like bread should be the foundation of my diet and thinking that the little dots throughout the pyramid (meant to represent fats and added sugars) were just decorative polka dots, but that was the extent of my understanding. There were some lesser-known older recommendations from the USDA (you can find a full history of nutrition guidelines on the USDA website), but the Food Pyramid imagery took hold as the most recognizable symbol of ‘healthy eating’ for Americans.

MyPyramid (2005-2011)

By 2005, however, the USDA decided to give the beloved pyramid a makeover and created MyPyramid, which added the element of exercise, and peoples were less than receptive to the rebranding. While the overall message was good (fruits and vegetables should each be about as important as grains; exercise is a key component of ‘a healthier you’), the graphic came across as confusing and somewhat sloppy with its half-cartoon/half-photograph images of food heaped at the bottom like they had fallen onto the floor. Most people I know never even saw this image or perhaps simply blocked it from memory.

MyPlate (2010 to present)

In 2010, with the release of the updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the USDA launched an entirely new image with a non-pyramid campaign: MyPlate. This shift brought the dietary recommendations directly to Americans’ dinner plates and made the concept of ‘healthy eating’ more relatable.  For the first time, there was an image people could apply at each meal; where the pyramid was an abstract structure representing overall diet, the public could easily look at their plates and ask themselves: how does this compare to MyPlate?

The dietary breakdown of MyPlate matches MyPyramid but portrays the information as a clean visual: about 25% of your plate should be a protein, 25% should be grains (or a starchy vegetable), and the other 50% should be a combination of fruits and vegetables. Dairy is also shown as an add-on for meals (stuck on the side as a presumed glass of milk). Though every given meal obviously can’t fit this template, MyPlate’s greatest attribute is that it is simple to understand, making it particularly great for teaching children from a young age.

The resources that accompany MyPlate are phenomenal though perhaps not as well known. On www.choosemyplate.gov, you’ll find a hub of information like a MyPlate in-depth breakdown, printable handouts, meal plans, tip sheets, online quizzes, infographics, a BMI calculator, and more for a huge range of audiences including children, students, adults, families, professionals, and non-English speaking readers.

As a Registered Dietitian, my number one concern is always how I can best share healthy eating guidelines in a way that makes sense for patients and clients. I need to explain things in a way people can apply throughout their day without overcomplicating things and risking burnout. MyPlate does just that. While the guidelines are generalized and may need tweaking for individual needs, it’s overall a good mental image to keep yourself in check throughout the day. I highly recommend looking through the MyPlate site – and I challenge you to take the MyPlate quizzes and see how your knowledge stacks up.

Rise and Shine!

A new study found in Frontiers in Endocrinology links early morning behavior with lower BMI and lower risk of Type II DM.

Participants with pre-diabetes were given a score on something called the Composite Scale of Morningness, which was a number representing how early the like to wake up, go to sleep, and go about their day (physical and mental activity). ‘Morningness,’ or the tendency to do everything earlier than most, was linked to lower BMI, as was longer sleep duration. The findings were strongest for those 60 and older.

Would you shift your schedule for health benefits?

To read the original article, visit the text online here.

Let them eat carbs! … in the right amounts.

A new study published in The Lancet addresses one of the most pressing questions in the history of human nutrition: Are carbs okay to eat, and if so, how much can I have?!

Carbohydrates get a bad name in popular nutrition media, partly because so many of our favorite junk foods are high in processed grains and refined sugars (ice cream, cookies, white bread, donuts, chocolate, chips…) along with the inherent nature of carbohydrates to be relatively fast-fuel for our bodies — though they’re often turned to fat because we simply don’t burn them as fast as we eat them.  On the other hand, whole grains, fresh fruit, corn, peas, milk, and yogurt are all wonderful foods that are also packed with carbs. This brings us back to our burning question: can I eat carbs or not?

The study published this month explored longevity for people following low-carb or high-carb diets in comparison to moderate-carb diets where about 50-55% of calories come from carbohydrate. For a frame of reference, the currently recommended carbohydrate intake range is 45-65%, so the moderate levels falls nicely in line with this. Those who did follow the moderate-carb diets had the lowest risk of mortality compared to those who ate <40% or >70% of their calories from carbs.

This study hit all of the golden points for quality research: there was a large pool of participants (over 15,000 adults) who were followed for a long period of time (median of 25 years). Most importantly, the researchers dove a bit deeper into why a low-carb diet may be just as dangerous as a high-carb one.  When people cut out carbohydrates, something else must take its place so protein and/or fat intake increases to make up the difference. These can either come from animal sources (meat, dairy) or plant sources (nuts, seeds, whole grains). The researchers explored these two options and found that those who eat more animal-sourced protein and fats have higher mortality risks than those who choose plant-based proteins and fats instead, indicating that a plant-based diet may have protective factors.

The original article has been published as Open Access, meaning that anyone can read it – so check it out here!

Cutting Calories to Cut Cancer Risk

Many people try to lose weight to feel a bit better, move more easily, and maybe fit into that smaller pair of pants– but did you know that extra weight is also tied to about 20% of all cancers?

Because it’s difficult to control lifestyle factors at a major level, most studies linking weight to cancer are Observational in nature– meaning that we can look at what is happening in a population without actually controlling any variables. This data can be less reliable but, when many studies are viewed as a group, can indicate strong relationships. A study from The British Medical Journal evaluated over 200 observational studies and found a link between obesity, waist circumference, and weight gain and several cancers, with the strongest evidence linking obesity to esophageal, pancreatic, liver/gallbladder, colorectal, and kidney cancers — all related to the GI tract– as well as bone marrow and endometrial cancers. 

The mechanism underlying the causation is unknown, though National Cancer Institute believes that a few key factors may contribute to the relationship:

  • Inflammation: Obesity is generally accompanied by chronic inflammation, which is repeatedly linked to cellular dysfunction and cancer development.
  • Hormones: Fat cells tend to excrete more estrogen than other cells, which may increase risks of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast or ovarian.
  • Insulin: High body weight generally leads to higher insulin levels in the body, which may increase risk of colon, cancer, and endometrial cancers.

According to the American Cancer Society, the best advice for a cancer-free life is to stay lean without being underweight, meaning that a BMI between 18.5 and 25 (which is considered ‘normal’) is a good reference range. Even losing a small percentage of body weight can help lower health-related risks.

 

For more tips, visit:

 

 

Food Label Health Claims Decoded

The FDA recently approved a qualified health claim linking macadamia nuts to heart health, allowing food packaging to state:

“Supportive but not conclusive research shows that eating 1.5 ounces per day of macadamia nuts, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and not resulting in increased intake of saturated fat or calories may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. See nutrition information for fat [and calorie] content.”

My first reaction was, to be honest, excitement; I love macadamia nuts and am happy to hear that they may help protect my heart.

My second instinct, however, was to pause and wonder how other consumers may react to this. While I support nuts as a source of healthy fats and a major part of my diet, I do know that there is a lot of confusion surrounding food labels and the health claims asserted on packaging. Does this mean we should eat macadamia nuts every day? Will this treat heart disease? How much evidence is there behind this?

Luckily, labels are highly regulated, and a claim like this can be easily decoded with a bit of background.

The FDA allows the food industry to use health claims — statements which relate a certain ingredient to a health condition– when there is adequate scientific evidence supporting the relationship.  Different claims may highlight levels of nutrients (‘good source of vitamin A’) with approval, or they can tie a relationship between a nutrient and the functioning of the body (like ‘calcium builds strong bones’), though the FDA does not evaluate these claims and the label must reflect that. Companies cannot say that a nutrient is meant to diagnose, treat, or a cure a disease.

The gold-standard for claims are the Authorized ones, where there is such an abundance of evidence that the FDA supports the usage of these statements with confidence. There are only a handful of these claims (the list is found here), but some of the major ones include: Calcium/vitamin D and osteoporosis, saturated fat/cholesterol and heart disease, fruits/vegetables and cancer, and sodium and hypertension.

The list of ‘qualified’ claims is far longer– these are the statements that are supported by some body of research but not quite enough to be taken as undeniable fact. The FDA allows companies to use the statements but also requires a qualifying statement saying that, while there is evidence, it is not not enough to meet the rigorous standards of the FDA’s authorized claims.

For more on Qualified Health Claims, visit the FDA’s dedicated site: https://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm2006877.htm

 

My Egg Obsession

Scrambled, poached, over easy, hard boiled, tossed into salads, floating in ramen… eggs can be added to any meal!

The myth that eggs cause high cholesterol has been debunked (your body makes more cholesterol from saturated fats, but the 200mg cholesterol in an egg won’t cause a corresponding spike in blood lipids), and the benefits of eggs are clear:

  • Protein! Eggs are one of the few non-meat items that provide all of the amino acids you need in your diet, and though the egg whites are known for this protein-punch, egg yolks also provide the nutrient.
  • Choline- this important nutrient is needed for brain health and neural development.
  • Lutein- a type of carotenoid that protects eye health
My egg splurge: eggs on a BLT with avocado, atop seven grain toast

Let Them Drink Coffee

Coffee drinkers, rejoice! A new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine linked coffee consumption with longer lifespan, confirming what we coffee-lovers had always known to be true: those beans are magic.

The study followed more than 185,000 adults for up to 20 years and found that coffee drinkers were less likely die than their non-caffeinated counterparts, and these findings held true for several ethnic subgroups (white, Latino, Japanese American, and African American).  Those who drank one cup per day were 12% less likely to have died during the study period, while those who drank more were actually 18% less likely- indicating that the coffee may have strong protective health effects.

A similar study also published this month examined this possible connection in over 520,000 Europeans. The researchers also found that participants who drank the most coffee were 7-12% less likely to die during the study, as well as decreased risk of death specifically from circulatory diseases and stroke among the women in the study (though there was also a connection between coffee consumption and ovarian cancer mortality).

The overall verdict: Whether it’s the caffeine, the polyphenols, or the sheer joy that comes from sipping your favorite brew, it appears that enjoying your daily coffee may help add a few more years to your life.

Healthy Baking Swaps

I love to bake, though when I first started experimenting in the kitchen, my recipes originally fell into two distinct categories:

  1. Delicious and decadent desserts that I bring to parties, holidays, or gatherings not made up of nutrition buffs
  2. Healthy, whole grain, low/natural sugar, lower-fat recipes that most my family kindly refers to as ‘cardboard’

I’ve since done more research on how to improve the nutrition of a recipe without sacrificing flavor, consistency, or appearance. Here are some stellar tips that I find particularly helpful from the experts at King Arthur Flour:

  1. Understand what will change if you cut sugar! 
    Sugar helps give baked goods the signature brown crust with a good crunch, so lowering the sugar will make a lighter product with a fluffier, more cake-like texture rather than crispy.  King Arthur’s has done some fun experiments showing that a recipe suffers if you cut the sugar by more than 50% (http://blog.kingarthurflour.com/2017/03/15/reduce-sugar-in-cookies-and-bars/) Hint: Natural sweeteners have just as many grams of sugar, though they may have trace amounts of other benefits and are generally less processed.
  2. Adding bran? Add more water!
    If you’re adding bran to a recipe for increased omega-3’s and the signature nutty taste, be aware that your product will likely small and dense unless you also adjust the water and add a bit more flour for rising.
  3. For high-quality whole grains, combine your flours.
    While some people do love a 100% whole grain bread (I know I do!), others like the fluffiness of a white bread. This same principle goes for cookies, cakes, etc- some whole grains may add flavor, but too many will make your product denser and will change it drastically from its original shape. Try using half all purpose flour and half whole wheat or other flour alternative for the best of both worlds.

For more tips, check out:

http://blog.kingarthurflour.com/2017/07/11/baking-with-reduced-sugar/
http://blog.kingarthurflour.com/2017/02/10/baking-ancient-grains/

 

Protein of the Day: Octopus!

I went out to dinner last night and ordered one of my favorite things: an octopus salad. If you’re new to octopus and feeling squeamish at the idea, don’t judge it till you’ve tried it!

3 ounces are packed with 25g of protein but only 140 calories, and it’s a solid source of iron (8mg per serving, which is almost half of your daily requirements) and other essential minerals like potassium and zinc.

Because it is rich in flavor, it tends to be paired with sweet and sour flavors like fruit, tomatoes, olives, or cheeses like feta. Next time you see it on a menu, give it a try!