Tag Archives: healthy diet

The Acai Berry: A Superfood?

Q: What are the health benefits of Acai?

A: The Acai berry is a small, round, black-purple fruit that grows on a certain species of palm tree found in Central and South America. You may have seen acai juices, snacks, powders and capsules flood the market in the past few years, as companies increasingly tout the berry as a “superfood,” packed with antioxidants that can protect against aging and cancer. Acai berry products are also said to help people lose weight, fight heart disease and improve arthritis.

In short, evidence to support these health claims is limited. Studies of the antioxidant capacity of acai berries are conflicting. Though supported by a competing company (POM), one study found that pomegranate juice, red wine and blueberry juice have greater antioxidant potency than acai juice (Seeram et al, 2008). In addition, acai products are marketed as dietary supplements, so they escape FDA regulation. The acai berry may not necessarily be harmful, but its presumed power – to enhance sleep and guard against wrinkles, for example – has yet to be verified scientifically. If you’re looking to save a buck, stick to what’s proven to work. Get your daily dose of antioxidants by meeting the recommend 2.5 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit per day.


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Filed under Fruits and Vegetables, Supplements, Vitamins & Minerals

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.


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

Getting Enough Calcium?

Q: My doctor recommended I take a calcium supplement. Which type do you suggest, and when is the best time of day to take it?

A: Calcium supplements come in two forms: calcium citrate or calcium carbonate. Calcium carbonate (e.g. Caltrate®, Viactiv®, Tums®) is cheaper than Calcium citrate (e.g. Citracal®), but research has shown that under normal circumstances, the two forms are equally absorbed and utilized by the body. The exception is in cases of reduced stomach acidity, which occurs often in the elderly or if you take medications that decrease gastric acid secretion. If this is the case, then calcium citrate is the way to go. Check the ingredient list on the back of supplements and multivitamins to know which form of calcium the product contains.

A few rules:

  1. Calcium carbonate products should be taken with meals.
  2. Calcium citrate products can be taken with food or on an empty stomach.
  3. Along with food and antacids, calcium supplements likely inhibit the absorption of medications intended to halt bone loss, such as Fosamax, Actonel or Didronel. After taking one of these drugs, wait at least 30 minutes before ingesting anything except plain water.
  4. Calcium may prevent iron absorption, so if you’re also on supplemental iron, space the two tablets several hours apart.

Healthy adults should aim for 1,000-1,200 mg elemental calcium per day. It’s important to buy a supplement that also contains vitamin D, which helps our body absorb calcium. The recommendation for vitamin D is set at 600 IU daily, but a number of researchers believe this number should even be doubled.

Let’s put things in perspective…One Caltrate®600+D tablet contains 600 mg calcium plus 400 IU of vitamin D. Daily goals can be met with two of these tablets daily. On the other hand, Citracal® Regular 250 mg + D contains 500 mg calcium and 400 IU vitamin D per serving, but a serving is 2 tablets! That means you would need to take 4 Citracal® tablets per day to meet the daily calcium requirement. Viactiv® flavoredchews each have 500 mg calcium and 500 IU vitamin D. Lastly, a single Tums® tablet contains 500 mg of calcium carbonate, but only 200 mg of that is elemental calcium. Bottom line? Be sure to read labels and, of course, inform your doctor of all vitamins, supplements and herbs you’re taking.


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Filed under 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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Filed under Fruits and Vegetables, Heart Healthy Choices, Weight loss

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!”



Filed under Food Groups, Heart Healthy Choices

Planning A Vegetarian diet

The quality of any diet – inclusive of meat or not – depends on whether nutritionally-sound food choices are made. The term ‘vegetarian’ refers to people who steer clear of most or all animal-derived foods, including eggs and dairy. Lacto-ovo vegetarians, on the other hand, consume milk products and eggs, but exclude meat and seafood. Ovo-vegetarians include eggs, but do not eat meat, seafood or dairy. Lastly, pesco-vegetarians eat seafood, eggs and dairy, but not meat or poultry. Depending on what type of “vegetarian” you are, a carefully planned diet must include good sources of calcium, iron, zinc and B12:

Calcium: If you don’t eat dairy products, you should select calcium-fortified juices, soy milk and breakfast cereals. Other good sources of absorbable calcium include figs, fortified tofu, some beans, and certain green vegetables, such as broccoli, kale and turnip greens.

Iron: The iron in plant foods, such as beans, dark green leafy vegetables and whole-grain breads is poorly absorbed.Luckily, vegetarians tend to eat produce that’s rich in vitamin C, which helps the body absorb iron more efficiently.

Zinc: Meat is the richest source of bioavailable zinc. Since soy interferes with zinc absorption, it’s important to include whole grains, nuts, and beans such as black-eyed peas, pinto beans and kidney beans in your diet.

B12: This vitamin, also known as cyanocobalamin, is only found in animal products. While soy products may contain some B12, it is not in the active form. The recommended daily intake for male and female adults is 2.4µg/day, although percent daily values (% DV) on food labels are based on 6µg. Your body stores about 5 years of B12, after which a deficiency in this vitamin can be extremely detrimental to your health. Strict vegetarians should not ignore this nutrient. B12 is absorbed with the help of intrinsic factor (IF), which is produced in your stomach. If you’re 60 or older, the loss of IF and low stomach acid levels may lead to B12 deficiency, whether or not you adhere to a vegetarian diet. If the deficiency is due to the loss of IF, you may need an intramuscular B12 injection.  If you’re younger, low B12 levels are more likely due to inadequate dietary intake and an oral vitamin supplement and careful food planning will help. Depending on what type of vegetarian you are, non-meat sources high in B12 include mollusks (e.g. clams), salmon, trout, tuna, egg, yogurt, American cheese and fortified cereal.



Filed under Food Groups, Meal Tips, Vitamins & Minerals

Rethink Your Drink

As a follow-up to my post on laying off the booze, it’s important to discuss the effect other types of caloric beverages, including juice and soda, have on weight loss efforts.

The scientific literature demonstrates that gulping water instead of high-calorie beverages at mealtime results in a lower total energy intake. In one particular study, no matter what drink subjects were assigned, participants consumed the same amount of calories from food (Della Valle et al, 2005). In other words, people don’t compensate for a highly caloric beverage by eating less. The beverage then ends up tagging unnecessary calories onto the energy tab.

But can water, specifically, help you lose weight? According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, adults who drink water have significantly lower total energy intake than non-water drinkers.

Scientific evidence also shows that water boosts lipid oxidation, or the breakdown of fat.  Experiments show that drinking water during exercise, rather than a sugary beverage, results in a greater breakdown of fat tissue stores (Stookey et al, 2009). Caloric beverages promote the release of insulin in the body, which inhibits fat oxidation.

Another study examined fat oxidation in healthy adults after eating (Brown et al, 2006). In the hours following breakfast consumption, fat breakdown in those who drank water with their meal exceeded the amount of fat contained in the actual test food. Fat breakdown was significantly less in subjects who had orange juice with breakfast. Put simply, constantly sipping on caloric beverages slows fat breakdown.

The bottom line? Switching to water is an effective way to reduce energy intake and stimulate the breakdown of fat. No wonder the ancient Greek poet Pindar once said, “Water is the best of all things.” Intake of all types of caloric beverages – be it alcohol, juice, regular soda or sports drinks – has the potential to make weight management a losing battle.


Reference: Stookey JD. Will drinking water help me lose weight? What healthcare professionals can say in response. Clinical Nutrition Insight. 2010; 36(2):1-4.




Filed under Meal Tips, Weight loss