Category Archives: Heart Healthy Choices

Antioxidants: Free radical scavengers

Q: What’s an “antioxidant”?

A: Antioxidants are compounds that offset damage to the body’s cells. Antioxidants, including certain vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, defend against injuries caused by free radicals. But what’s a free radical? Simply, free radicals are oxygen molecules floating around in your system that contain an unpaired electric charge. This single “electron” looks for a buddy to gain stability and so it destructively steals a second electron from substances like cell membranes and DNA.  Free radicals form naturally during the metabolism of food, but are also caused by cigarette smoke, air pollution and UV sun rays. While there are some benefits to free radicals, these highly reactive, unstable molecules are implicated in aging, neurodegenerative diseases and cancer. Fortunately, antioxidants can destroy free radicals, limit their formation and stimulate repair activity at the site of damage.

Antioxidant Food sources Recommended Daily Amount
Vitamin C Orange, grapefruit, mango, strawberries, broccoli 90 mg for men75 mg for women
Vitamin E Wheat germ oil, sunflower seeds, peanut butter 15 mg
Beta-carotene (Vitamin A  precursor) Carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli None established
Selenium Brazil nuts, tuna, turkey, rice 55 µg
Lycopene Tomatoes, ketchup, watermelon None established
Lutein Dark, leafy greens (e.g. spinach) None established
Resveratrol Red grapes None established
Anthocyanin Blueberries, raspberries, plums, red grapes None established

There is no set daily recommendation for most antioxidants; however, eating more fruits and vegetables is the best way to boost your intake. Rely on whole foods, not supplements, since popping high dose capsules can have negative health effects. For example, beta-carotene supplements are associated with higher rates of lung cancer in men; however, smokers are recommended to increase vitamin C intake, due to smoke-induced oxidative damage. My take? Get your antioxidants from food sources, steer clear of mega-dose pills and stick to recommended daily amounts of vitamins & minerals.

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Filed under Fruits and Vegetables, Heart Healthy Choices, Medical Conditions, Supplements, Vitamins & Minerals

Are There “Negative-Calorie” Foods?

Q: A “negative-calorie diet” seems too good to be true. Is it?

A: A negative-calorie diet causes you to expend more calories chewing, digesting and absorbing certain foods than the food actually contains. As an example, proponents of this diet claim that if you eat a cup of chopped lettuce that has 10 calories, you’ll burn that off and then some! While this sounds great, I haven’t found any research validating this theory. The “thermic effect of food” refers to the energy spent processing food in our system for storage and use, but we do not yet have the metabolic tools to determine this value for single food items.

Other purported negative-calorie foods include celery, carrots, cucumber, onion, spinach, apple, cranberry, orange, peach, strawberry and watermelon. The eBook The Negative Calorie Diet states that you can lose up to 14 pounds in two weeks by eating these foods! At that drastic rate, it must mean that you can only eat these foods and nothing else. But, a prolonged diet of only fruits and vegetables lacks several key nutrients, including protein and essential fats. Weight loss should always be gradual (1-2 pounds per week) and accomplished by exercising and eating smaller portions of well-balanced meals, including several daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Weight management is a delicate balance between calories in and calories out. The foods deemed “negative-calorie” are nutritious, low-energy fibrous fruits and veggies that fill you up and leave less room for higher-calorie items. If including these foods in your diet induces any weight loss, it’s likely only due to the fact that you’re eating fewer calories in general, not because your body’s digestive tract is working overtime.

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Are Nut Butters Worth The Hype?

Question:  I’ve heard that peanut butter alternatives, like almond butter, are better for you. The problem is, they can cost twice as much! Are the health benefits worth shelling out the extra dough?

Answer: A small container of peanut butter may cost $3.50, while an even smaller jar of almond butter might run you $7 bucks! The thing is, these “nut butters” are all very similar nutritionally and it mostly comes down to what your taste buds prefer.

Real butter comes from animal sources and contains a lot of artery-clogging saturated fat. Nut butters are made from plant-based sources, such as almonds, peanuts and cashews. Nut butters also contain a large amount of fat, but they are low in saturated fat and high in heart-healthy unsaturated fats.

The following table lists the nutrient profiles of 1 Tbsp of several nut butters. They generally have the same amount of calories, but peanut butter contains the most protein, which is what fills you up. Unfortunately, peanut butter also contains the most saturated fat (2 g per Tbsp), although not significantly more than the other nut butters.

Calories Protein Total Fat Saturated fat Monounsaturated fat Polyunsaturated fat
Peanut butter 95 cal 4g 8g 2g 4g 2g
Almond butter 101 cal 2g 9g 1g 6g 2g
Cashew butter 94 cal 3g 7.5g 1.5g 4.5g 1.5g
Sesame butter/Tahini 89 cal 3g 7.5g 1g 3g 3.5g
Sunflower butter 93 cal 3g 7.5g 1g 1.5g 5g

The nut butters highest in monounsaturated fats are the best for cardiovascular health, but all are great vegetarian options. Nut butters make great snacks, high in protein, calcium and iron! Here are a few healthful ideas: top a half a bagel or an apple with nut butter or spread nut butter on a whole-wheat tortilla and add sliced banana.

I found a 2003 study examining how eating different forms of almonds affect men and women with high cholesterol levels (Spiller et al). The subjects all followed a heart-healthy diet, which included 100 grams daily of roasted salted almonds, roasted almond butter or raw almonds for four weeks. All three forms lowered LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, but only roasted and raw almonds lowered total cholesterol. HDL (“good”) cholesterol did not change in the raw or roasted almonds groups, but slightly increased with almond butter!

All nut butters are healthy choices when used in moderation and when substituting for an unhealthy snack. If you’re interested, you can choose “natural” varieties that contain no hydrogenated oils or trans fats. Regular peanut butter contains a tiny amount of partially hydrogenated oil (a.k.a. trans fat), which keeps the product from separating and makes it taste creamier. “Natural” nut butters made with zero hydrogenated oils may have a layer of liquid at the top of the container, which needs to be stirred into the mixture prior to consumption. However, since the amount of trans fat in regular peanut butter is insignificant, government regulations allow products to remain labeled as containing “no trans fats per serving!”

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Beer: Better to “stay thirsty, my friends”

Q: How many calories are in a typical alcoholic beverage?

A: The quick answer? More than you probably think! One 12-oz beer has around 150 calories, while a 5-oz glass of wine contains about 100 calories. One small shot of an 80 proof spirit (e.g. gin, rum, vodka, whiskey), however, packs 96 calories and that’s not accounting for the mixer you’re using!

Simple math tells us that just two glasses of wine with dinner tacks another 200 calories onto the energy bill, while a tumbler of rum & cola adds anywhere from 150 – 200 calories. Most surprisingly, a single piña colada can supply nearly 300 calories! Yikes.

Do you remember the term “empty calories” being tossed around in health class? Alcoholic beverages are high in energy, but nearly devoid of any beneficial vitamins and minerals. Weight maintenance is all about balancing ‘energy in’ with ‘energy out,’ so if you’re worried about your figure, be careful how many frozen margaritas you’re slugging back and try to order drinks made with diet or club soda.

This post wouldn’t be complete without briefly mentioning other potentially harmful effects of alcohol consumption. Chronic heavy drinking raises your chance of developing future health complications, including liver problems, cancer and cardiovascular disease. However, quantity and frequency are independently associated with risk. In most cases, it is the number of drinks in one sitting that is detrimental to your health, rather than an occasional social cocktail. Frequent, but modest alcohol intake actually lowers your risk for cardiovascular disease, but may still be associated with an increased risk of cancer. To balance these effects, the American Heart Association recommends drinking only in “moderation,” if you’re going to do it at all. “Moderation” is defined as no more than 2 drinks per day for men and 1 for women.

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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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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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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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