Monthly Archives: February 2010

Secrets of Greek Yogurt

Q: Is there a difference between Greek yogurt and regular, conventional yogurt?

A:All yogurts are a great source of calcium, protein and beneficial bacteria (“probiotics”), which aid in digestion. However, for those of you who dislike the thinner, runnier texture of conventional yogurt, Greek yogurt is a good alternative, because it’s richer and creamier. Three popular brands of Greek yogurt are Fage, Chobani and Stonyfield’s Oikos. No matter what yogurt you choose – conventional or Greek – make sure to purchase the low-fat or non-fat variety!

Let’s take a look at the specific differences in nutrient content…

Dannon’s Plain,    Non-fat (Regular Yogurt) Stonyfield’s Oikos Plain, 0% fat (Greek Yogurt) Fage’s Plain, 0% fat (Greek Yogurt)
Serving Size 6 oz 5.3 oz 6 oz
Calories 80 kcal 80 kcal 90 kcal
Sodium 120 mg 60 mg 65 mg
Sugar 12 g 6 g 7 g
Protein 9 g 15 g 15 g
Calcium 300 mg 200 mg 200 mg
  1. Greek yogurt contains about half the sodium of regular yogurt.  In general, yogurt is a great heart-healthy snack, but since we get way too much sodium in our processed-food diets as it is, Greek yogurt is a great option for salt-sensitive people.
  2. Greek yogurt is quite low in sugar.  With half the carbs of conventional yogurt, Greek yogurt won’t spike your blood sugar as high as a regular yogurt might.
  3. Greek yogurt is very high in protein. Dairy is always a solid source of protein, but with 15g of protein per 6-oz container, Greek yogurt will make you feel fuller longer than conventional yogurt.
  4. Greek yogurt is lower in calcium than regular yogurt. Unfortunately, conventional yogurt beats Greek yogurt in this category, at times packing 100 added milligrams of bone-building calcium per serving. While it’s important to meet your calcium requirement, adding any type of low-fat yogurt to your daily routine will bring you one step closer to a healthy, well-balanced diet.

Update: Upon further investigation of food labels, I’ve found a big difference in the calcium content of Greek yogurt flavors. The plain, 0% fat variety may contain 20-25% of the daily value (DV) of calcium, which is approximately 200 – 250 mg*, but honey & fruit flavors can have much less! The honey, cherry and peach flavors of Fage Greek yogurt contain only 10% of the DV! On the other hand, all of the low-fat Greek yogurt flavors made by Chobani contain 200 mg of calcium per 6 oz container. Clearly, it’s important to comparison shop by reading the nutrition label! Since yogurt packaged with fruit or honey will be higher in sugar, your best bet is to buy the plain, non-fat yogurt and add fresh fruit of your own!

*Remember: Adults should aim for 1,000-1,2000 mg calcium per day to maintain healthy bones!

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Filed under Dairy, Heart Healthy Choices, Vitamins & Minerals

Ditch The Soda

The typical 12-oz can of soda contains about 140 calories and includes 40 grams of sugar. That’s equivalent to pouring 9 teaspoons of table sugar straight into your drink.

Sure, sugar makes things taste sweet, but it may also be detrimental to your health in excessive quantities. Sugar can promote tooth decay, increased triglyceride levels, weight gain and poor nutrition. As you guzzle sugary drinks, you’re loading your body with extra calories with no nutritional value. You’re then more likely to skimp on the healthy foods, which do contain important vitamins and minerals. In 2006, a research team aimed to quantify the energy imbalance that is responsible for the recent trend of weight gain in children (Wang et al; 2006). The scientists found that behavioral changes amounting to 110-165 fewer calories per day were enough to avoid weight gain. To clarify this point, this could be achieved by either eliminating one sugar-sweetened beverage or walking just over mile every day.  Ditching the soda can is probably easier.

Some sugar is naturally found in nutritious foods like milk (lactose) and fruit (fructose). “Added sugar,” on the other hand, is the offender. Processed foods, such as sweets and non-diet soft drinks are rich in added sugars. The average American consumes a whopping 22 teaspoons (370 calories) of added sugar each day. This number far exceeds what’s recommended. Due to the potential consequences of excessive sugar intake, the American Heart Association has suggested that women should not consume more than 100 calories a day (6 tsp) from added sugar and that men should consume no more than 150 calories a day (9 tsp) from added sugar. Again, that’s the equivalent of one soda a day, not counting any other sugary snacks you nibble on.

The bottom line? Minimize your consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, including iced teas, soda and fruit drinks. Water is still my #1 choice, but if you’re craving carbonation, try flavored club soda. Treat soft drinks as special snacks, rather than a staple at lunch.  Diet beverages are better than regular, at least for weight loss purposes, but some studies have shown that people believe that a diet soda entitles them to load up on extra junk; thus the phenomenon of ordering a double cheeseburger, super-sized fries and a diet soda at the drive-thru.

Lastly, remember to note serving sizes when checking the nutrition facts. For example, one 16-oz bottle of Snapple contains two servings. So while the label provides the info for one serving (80 calories & 21g sugar) you have to double that if you plan on drinking every last drop.

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Filed under Food Groups, Heart Healthy Choices, Weight loss

The Big Deal About “Organic”

Q: Is organic food more nutritious?

A: Not necessarily. The term “organic” is defined by the USDA. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy must come from animals given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Plant foods (e.g. fruits, vegetables,  grains, legumes) must be produced without pesticides, artificial fertilizers, genetic modification or  irradiation. The government inspects every organic farm to make sure it meets these standards. There  are three levels of organic food claims:


100% Organic:Products that are completely organic and are produced organically at every step. For example, in a 100% organic trail mix, all the nuts, raisins and granola must come from organic fields and be processed in organic factories.

Organic: At least 95% of a product’s ingredients meet organic standards.

Made with Organic: At least 70% of a product’s components are organic. (If a product contains less than 70% organic ingredients, the USDA forbids the use of the word “organic” on the label.)

Organic agricultural principles are kinder to nature and to farm animals, but are organic foods healthier? The jury is still out. In March 2008, The Organic Center completed a review of scientific research and found that organic plant-foods are more nutritious, on average, than conventional foods. In contrast, a September 2009 study funded by the UK Food Standards Agency and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found no evidence of significant differences in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foods (Dangour, et al). Until research is more conclusive, non-organic foods have the same nutritious components – vitamins and minerals included – as organic items. The difference lies in growing practices.

I realize buying everything organic is nearly impossible and can get very expensive. Here are 5 tips:

1. Buy dairy products free of artificial hormones, which force increased milk production in cows.  The health risk to humans is controversial, but recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) has been banned in the European Union for over 15 years. “Hormone-free” milk is not hard to find (you may already be drinking it!) and does not cost a lot.

2. If it’s a fruit or vegetable that you eat without peeling first, such as grapes or celery, think about buying the organic version. On the other hand, when you remove a thick skin off produce (like on an orange or banana), you reduce consumption of the chemicals used during farming and production anyway.

3. If the fruit is prone to soaking up a lot of chemicals during farming, buy organic. For example, non-organic berries and thin-skinned peaches are likely to retain a lot of chemicals, even after washing.

4. Due to body size, chemicals are more toxic to children. The government deems pesticides “safe” when used within certain restrictions, but it is especially important to limit a developing baby’s or child’s exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.

5. Always thoroughly wash your fruits and vegetables under running water! This can remove dirt particles, as well as some of the remaining pesticide or fertilizer used on non-organic produce.

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Fast Facts on Fats

Q: There are so many types of cooking oil on the market. Which one should I use?

A: The healthiest oils are those with the least amount of saturated fat. Choose canola oil, corn oil, olive oil, safflower oil, sesame oil, soybean oil and sunflower oil. These varieties are higher in mono- and polyunsaturated fats, which are heart healthy, because they are able to lower total cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol if used in place of other fats. No matter which oil you pick, however, it’s important to use it sparingly. Each tablespoon of a vegetable-based oil packs 120 calories! Stay away from coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil – these three oils are high in saturated fat, which raises your risk for heart disease.

Here’s how to choose among some of the “healthier” oil options:

Canola oil: Has the least amount of saturated fat (only 7%)! Great for sautéing, stir frying, baking and salad dressings. Canola oil does not give off a strong flavor and can be used over high-heat.

Olive oil: Contains a large amount of good, monounsaturated fat. Use it for dressings, marinades, roasting, grilling and low-heat cooking. Olive oil will start to break down at very high temperatures.

Vegetable oil: This oil is usually made from soybeans. It is an all-purpose oil that can be used for baking, sautéing and pan frying. Since vegetable oil has a relatively high saturated fat content, canola oil is a healthier choice.

Corn oil: With about 13% saturated fat, corn oil is not the best option. It can be used for deep frying, stir-frying, sautéing and baking, because of a very high tolerance to heat.

Peanut oil: While it is often used in yummy Asian-inspired stir fry dishes, peanut oil has a very high saturated fat content (about 18%)! This makes it costly to your cardiovascular health.

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Filed under Fats & Oils, Heart Healthy Choices, Meal Tips

Protecting your heart

Q: My doctor says I have high cholesterol. What can I do to lower it?

A: There are several components to a “lipid profile” – total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, HDL (“good”) cholesterol and triglycerides. If your physician is telling you that you have “high cholesterol,” he is referring to either the total cholesterol number, your LDL reading or both. A desirable profile is as follows:

Total cholesterol <200 mg/dl

LDL cholesterol <130 mg/dl

HDL cholesterol >40 mg/dl (>50 mg/dl for women)

Triglyceride level <150 mg/dl

Cholesterol is a component of animal products and is not found in plant-based foods. It is necessary in the body for the production of bile, which helps digest fats, and steroid hormones (e.g. vitamin D, estrogen and testosterone). While the body utilizes cholesterol for important functions, the liver is also able to synthesize necessary amounts – it is not necessary to ingest it as part of your diet! Total cholesterol, LDL and triglyceride levels that are too high put you at risk for cardiovascular disease.


Let’s focus on LDL cholesterol, since it has been linked to atherosclerosis, coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke. Several factors influence LDL levels, including age, diabetes, obesity, reduced estrogen levels and diet.  Diets high in saturated fat and cholesterol elevate LDL. In addition, trans-fats can raise LDL and lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol – a double whammy!

Lower your saturated fat intake! Saturated fat intake has a much greater negative effect on blood cholesterol than does dietary cholesterol. (Dietary cholesterol, however, is often found in the same foods that are high in saturated fat.) Choose lean meats, select skim milk, low-fat dairy products and stick to vegetable oils that are liquid at room temperature (e.g. cook with olive or canola oil, rather than butter or lard.) To further cut back on fat intake, remove the skin from chicken before eating, substitute margarine for butter and grill or bake fish, meat and poultry instead of frying.

Eat a minimum amount of trans-fat. Select products that are made with no hydrogenated (or partially hydrogenated) vegetable oils. Check the ingredient list before buying!!

Lastly, up your intake of viscous or soluble fiber. Choose more fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains, especially barley and oats.

While there are several ways to manage blood cholesterol levels with medication, try modifying your diet first. Just a 1-point decrease in your LDL cholesterol level corresponds to a 1-2% decrease in your risk for developing coronary heart disease!

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Are you a healthy weight?

Q: What is a ‘body mass index’ and how do I calculate mine?

A: Body mass index, or BMI, is calculated using weight and height and often correlates with body fatness. Therefore, your BMI can indicate your risk for health problems associated with being underweight or overweight. Calculate your BMI here.

BMI < 18.5

Underweight

BMI 18.5 – 24.9

Healthy weight

BMI 25 – 29.9

Overweight

BMI 30 – 39.9

Obesity

BMI ≥ 40

Extreme obesity

Two-thirds of the adult U.S. population is currently overweight or obese.  Excess weight drastically increases your risk for chronic diseases, including hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. If any of these conditions run in your family, it is particularly important to manage your weight.

Alongside BMI, waist circumference is also an important indicator of disease risk. BMI cannot differentiate between varying body compositions, but waist circumference can. Abdominal obesity – a so-called “apple” body shape – is especially dangerous. The fat stored centrally, known as visceral fat, is more swiftly released into the bloodstream, contributing to an increase in LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and a higher heart disease risk. Fat around the thighs, hips and legs also does this, but at a much slower rate. In addition, abdominal fat promotes inflammation in the body, which has been linked to chronic illnesses. [For reference, a “high-risk” waist circumference is ≥ 35 inches for women and ≥ 40 inches for men. Use a tape measure to assess your risk: Keep it level with your navel, parallel to the floor and do not hold your breath while measuring.]

Even if your weight and body type are putting you at high risk, there’s still good news! Modest weight loss of just 5-10% of your body weight significantly improves health, control of diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol. And if you’re overweight, fitness still matters! A study by Lee et al (1999) demonstrated that fit, obese men had a dramatically lower all-cause mortality risk as compared to unfit, lean men! Now that’s a reason to exercise!

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Filed under Medical Conditions, Weight loss