Category Archives: food

Six foods that you should eat every week

Fast food and frozen dinners have become a large part of the modern diet, mostly because of convenience.  Poor food choices that include sugary drinks and greasy snacks contribute to the high incidence of obesity, particularly when combined with a sedentary life style.

Eating small portions will help you maintain a healthy weight, but when you eat less your diet must include all the essential vitamins and minerals for proper nutrition.  Here are six foods that eaten every week can help you to stay healthy.

1. Nonfat yogurt is source of protein and calcium as well as probiotic bacteria that keep disease-causing bacteria from getting established in the digestive system.

2. Sardines contain protein and essential minerals, but they are also a source of omega-3 fatty acids which are essential for the health of the brain and the eyes.  These long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids are particularly important nutrients during pregnancy and early childhood.  Unlike larger long-lived fish like tuna and swordfish, sardines have a lower content of heavy metals like mercury because they are lower in the food chain.

3. Oatmeal is a source of soluble fiber that lowers cholesterol and promotes regularity.  Fiber is not a nutrient, but it helps to attenuate blood glucose spikes by reducing the absorption in the intestines.  In addition, fiber promotes growth of intestinal bacteria that produce short-chain fatty acids and Vitamin K.

4. Salad greens contain a wide variety of vitamins, phytonutrients and fiber.  Leafy greens contain Vitamin E, Vitamin C, beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein-zeaxanthin and many other chemical compounds essential for good health.

5. Berries are a good source of anthocyanin antioxidants and vitamins.

6. Nuts contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, as well as protein and fiber.  Nuts are generally high in calories due to their oil content, but these are good fats.  If you eat peanut butter or other nut butters, make sure that they do not contain hydrogenated oils or saturated fats like coconut oil or palm oil because these increase cholesterol levels.  Read the labels.

These six nutritious foods can be combined into delicious meals.  A bowl of oatmeal can be garnished with berries and nuts topped with a spoonful of yogurt.  Sardines served on a bed of mixed salad greens will also make an excellent meal.

Use the Diet Calculator

Improve your diet for the New Year

A few changes to your diet can improve your health dramatically. The improvements will not occur suddenly, but your body will be healthier over time. If you are overweight, or if you have high cholesterol or blood pressure, a proper diet can improve your health. The important thing to remember is that you have to maintain good eating habits. You cannot eat junk food frequently and expect to improve your health. Pastries, candies and greasy food should become a very, very small part of your diet.

If you want to be healthy, you have to eat nutritious food. Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. The vegetables and fruits can be fresh, frozen, canned or dried, as long as they do not include added sugar or preservatives. Fruits and vegetables decrease the risks of cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease by increasing fiber and aiding weight loss. Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and watercress, have been shown to protect against cancer.[1] Brightly colored vegetables and berries have phytonutrients that serve as antioxidants that enhance immune response. Blueberries and raspberries are low in calories and have many essential nutrients.

Reduce your fat intake by avoiding greasy foods like pizza, potato chips, fatty meats and cured or smoked meats. You should not avoid all fats. The body needs omega-3 fats, which are good for the brain and eyes, and can be obtained by eating fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna and trout. Sunflower seeds and walnuts are vegetable sources of omega-3 fats. You should eat these foods three or four times per week to get an adequate amount of essential fatty acids.

Reduce starchy and sugary foods. Excessive consumption of carbohydrates leads to obesity and type 2 diabetes. One of the best changes that you can make to your diet is to avoid sweet soft drinks and to replace all refined flour products with whole-grain products. Try whole-wheat pasta, brown rice and grains like quinoa and bulgur wheat. These are easy to cook and can be used in salads, side dishes or main courses. The hardest thing to give up will be pastries and candies because our body has a built-in desire for sweets, but you must limit desserts to very small quantities.

Humans evolved on an omnivorous diet that included plants and animal products. Some nutrients, like Vitamin B12, can only be obtained from animal sources. Vegetarian meals that include milk and eggs can provide complete nutrition and may be an alternative way for decreasing meat in the diet. Vegetarian meals like a bowl of lentil soup with a cheese sandwich, or Cajun red beans and rice with a garden salad can be delicious and very satisfying.

To make your diet work, you have to get rid of the junk food in your kitchen. Donate to a food bank any food with hydrogenated fats, and anything high in sodium or with preservatives. Also, eliminate sodas and sugary drinks. Make room in your refrigerator for fresh produce and in your pantry for whole grain products. Start the new year with better menus for a healthier life.

[1] Keck AS, Finley JW., Cruciferous vegetables: cancer protective mechanisms of glucosinolate hydrolysis products and selenium, Integr Cancer Ther. 2004 Mar;3(1):5-12. PMID: 15035868

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Salmon SandwichThe consumption of fish has played an important role in the evolution of humans.  The human brain consists approximately of 60% fat.  Fatty acids called ALA, DHA and EPA are concentrated in cell walls and the myelin sheaths of the neurons.  These long-chain fatty acids have an unsaturated double bond in the third carbon from the end, and thus are known chemically as omega-3 fatty acids.  These fats are essential for good health and must be included in the diet because the body cannot create them from other fats.  Some vegetable sources, such as walnuts and flax seed, contain ALA, but fish oil is the best source of DHA and EPA.  The body can convert ALA to DHA and EPA, but not very efficiently.

Omega-3 fatty acids are components of all cell membranes and a deficiency of these essential fatty acids can cause symptoms such as fatigue, poor memory, dry skin, heart problems, depression, and bad circulation.  Fish oil supplementation is generally safe when taken in low doses (3 grams or less per day), but there are some safety concerns when fish oil is taken in high doses because it may keep blood from clotting and can increase the chance of bleeding, particularly in combination with anticoagulants and blood thinners.

It is always better to get nutrients from foods rather than from supplements.  Natural foods, such as salmon, herring or other fish, have the essential fatty acids, but they also have protein, vitamins and minerals necessary for a healthy diet.  The picture above shows an open-faced sandwich with slices of smoked salmon on sour dough bread spread with a teaspoon of mustard, and garnished with slices of avocado and chopped dill.  This is a delicious way of getting your omega-3 fatty acids.

Learn more about Fatty Acids

Omega-3 deficiency will shrink your brain

Baked SalmonBaked Salmon Recipe

Brain tissue contains about 60 percent fat.[1]  Two essential fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are necessary for the proper development and function of the brain and the eyes.  Deficiencies of these long-chain fatty acids can lead to psychiatric disorders, including depression.[2]  Fortunately, these fatty acids are found in fish oil, and eating fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel or sardines several times per week can provide enough of these necessary nutrients to maintain good health.

Essential fatty acids are called “essential” because they have to be obtained from the food that we eat and cannot be created from monounsaturated or saturated fats.  Strict vegetarians who do not consume animal products, including fish, can potentially develop omega-3 deficiency.  However, flax seed oil is a good vegetable source of alpha linolenic acid (ALA) which is an omega-3 fatty acid with 18 carbon atoms that can be converted by the body into EPA with 20 carbons, and DHA with 22 carbons, although at low efficiency.

A recent study tried to find out why higher dietary intake of omega-3 fats and higher blood levels of DHA and EPA have been associated with a reduced risk for dementia.[3]  The researchers performed cognitive tests and measured the brain volume of 1,575 dementia-free participants of the Framingham Study.  The participants with the lowest blood levels of DHA had lower total brain volumes.  Participants with lower omega-3 levels also had lower scores on tests of visual memory, abstract thinking, and executive function which includes cognitive processes such as planning, memory, attention span, problem solving and verbal reasoning.  The study concludes that lower blood levels of DHA are associated with smaller brain volumes and cognitive impairment even in persons free of clinical dementia.

Learn more about dietary fats

[1]Roy Walford, M.D., “Beyond the 120 Year Diet: How to Double Your Vital Years“, 2000.

[2] Edwards R, et al., Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid levels in the diet and in red blood cell membranes of depressed patients, J Affect Disord. 1998 Mar; 48(2-3):149-55. PMID: 9543204

[3] Tan, Z.S., et al., Red blood cell omega-3 fatty acid levels and markers of accelerated brain aging, Neurology, February 28, 2012 78:658-664

Christmas cookies and candies

German Honey CookiesChristmas is a time of the year when the family gets together to eat delicious food and celebrate.  On Christmas eve, cookies and a glass of milk are placed for Santa Claus near the Christmas tree, and Santa places gifts under the tree while the children sleep.

The tradition of baking cookies and sweet treats for the Christmas holidays was started in medieval Europe.  By the 16th century, cookies were being flavored with many types of spices and fruits.  In Germany, honey cookies like the ones pictured above are particularly popular.

Honiglebkuchen – Honey Cookie Recipe

Candies are also popular during Christmas, and almond brittle is a favorite because the new crop of almonds is harvested in the fall.  Brittle is a hard candy embedded with nuts such as pecans, almonds, or peanuts.   The candy is easy to make by just melting sugar and adding the nuts.

Almond BrittleAlmond Brittle Recipe

Learn about the History and Traditions of Christmas

Delicious pasta shapes – farfalle and garganelli

Everybody loves pasta, and it is not hard to make your own.  The pasta that you buy in the store is usually made only from flour and water.  When you make your own pasta, you can make it more nutritious by adding eggs like traditional Italian pasta.  You can also create fun shapes that are decorative and appetizing.

The picture above shows farfalle (butterflies) and garganelli tubes.  Farfalle are made by folding and pinching pasta squares, and the garganelli are made by wrapping pasta squares on the handle of a wooden spoon while pressing the pasta tubes against a gnocchi board to make ridges.

Learn how to make ravioli and other types of pasta

What to eat to lose weight

Eating a daily portion of French fries will eventually make you fat, and eating yogurt every day can keep you from gaining weight. This is one of the conclusions of a report published by researchers at Harvard University[1] which found that specific dietary and lifestyle factors are independently associated with long-term weight gain. The study found that a combination of these factors have aggregate effects. In essence, if French fries can make you fat and, independently, sugar-sweetened beverages can make you fat, the combination of French fries and sweet sodas will make you fatter than either one of them alone. The image above shows the pounds gained or avoided over four years for every additional serving per day of specific foods.

The research followed for twenty years 120,877 non-obese U.S. men and women, free of chronic disease from three different groups. Relationships between lifestyle factors and weight change were evaluated at 4-year intervals, with various adjustments made for age, baseline BMI, and lifestyle factors.

Overall, the participants gained 3.35 pounds, or 2.4% of their body weight, in each four-year interval. Over the 20 years of follow up, that amounted to almost 17 additional pounds. The data also revealed a strong weight-gain connection with certain foods, such as potatoes in various forms, sugar-sweetened beverages, unprocessed red meats, and processed meats. Some foods such as vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts and yogurt were inversely connected to weight gain, i.e., people who ate these foods gained less weight over time.

The study found that daily consumption of yogurt prevented 0.82 pounds of weight gain over each of the 4-year periods. Physical activity translated into 1.76 fewer pounds gained during each time period. Participants who slept less than six hours or more than eight hours per night gained more weight within each study period. Those who watched more television gained an average of 0.31 pounds for every hour of TV watched per day. Foods most strongly associated with weight gain every four years were potatoes, including fries (a 1.28-pound gain), sugar-sweetened beverages (1-pound gain), unprocessed red meats (0.95-pound gain), and processed meats (0.93-pound gain). Alcohol use was also associated with about a 0.41-pound gain per drink per day.

Each increased daily serving of potato chips alone was associated with a 1.69 pound-weight gain every four years. Potato chips are basically carbohydrates and fat with very little protein and almost no nutritional value. The Nutrition Label of Kirkland Kettle brand krinkle cut potato chips shows that one serving of 28 grams consists of approximately 9 chips. Eating those nine potato chips every day for four years results in a weight gain of 1.69 pounds.

One serving of potato chips

The results of the study demonstrate that the quality of the diet, i.e., the types of food and beverages that one consumes, is strongly linked to weight gain. One of your best strategies for losing weight is to increase your physical activity and reduce your consumption of potatoes and other simple carbohydrates such as white bread and sugar-sweetened drinks.

Learn more about weight loss.

[1] Dariush Mozaffarian, et al., Changes in Diet and Lifestyle and Long-Term Weight Gain in Women and Men, N Engl J Med 2011; 364:2392-2404 June 23, 2011

Health Benefits of Virgin Coconut Oil

Virgin coconut oil is sometimes described as having incredible and near-miraculous health benefits as a nutritional supplement.  Some of these exaggerated claims are made by manufacturers or by websites that sell the coconut oil which is clearly a conflict of interest.  Does coconut oil have any real benefits for health?

Coconut oil is extracted from the meat of mature coconuts harvested from the coconut palm.  There are several methods for extracting the oil and they produce oils with different characteristics.  In the traditional method, the coconut kernel is shredded, mixed with a little water, and then squeezed to extract an emulsion called coconut cream or coconut milk.  The coconut milk is then allowed to separate naturally, and the oil rises to the surface.  In the dry process, shredded coconut is dried in the sun or in an oven and the oil is extracted by pressing.  The dried coconut kernel is called “copra”, and coconut oil is sometimes called copra oil.  Virgin coconut oil is defined as coconut oil obtained by mechanical or natural means with or without the application of heat, which does not lead to alteration of the oil.  Coconut oil prepared by cold pressing preserves polyphenols and other biologically active components that may be degraded by heat.

Coconut oil is used in foods, medicines, cosmetics, and industrial applications.  In some Asian countries, coconut oil is used for cooking and frying, and coconut milk is used as an ingredient in curry recipes.  Coconut oil is resistant to rancidity and its use increased as a replacement for hydrogenated fats when manufacturers were required to report trans fats in nutrition labels.

Chemically, coconut oil is a mixture of triglycerides (compounds made of glycerol and fatty acids) with carbon chains of 8 to 18 atoms.  Over ninety percent of the fatty acids in coconut oil are saturated, which means that they cannot oxidize and become rancid.  Approximately 60% of coconut oil consists of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) with fatty acids of 6 to 12 carbon atoms.  The only unsaturated fatty acids in coconut oil are oleic acid and linoleic acid which comprise only 8 percent of the total fatty acids. The typical fatty acid composition of coconut oil is given in the following table.

Caprylic Acid (C8:0)      8%
Capric Acid (C10:0)       6%
Lauric Acid (C12:0)     47%
Myristic Acid (C14:0)  18%
Palmitic Acid (C16:0)     9%
Stearic Acid (C18:0)       3%
Oleic Acid (C18:1)            6%
Linoleic Acid (C18:2)      2%

The health claims for coconut oil are based on the properties of some of the fatty acid components.  Medium-chain triglycerides are absorbed directly from the gastrointestinal system and consumption of MCTs has been shown to increase energy expenditure and lead to greater losses of the adipose tissue in animals and humans.[1]  Lauric acid is also found in human milk (6.2% of total fat) and it has antibacterial and antiviral activity[2,3].

Something that is less frequently mentioned about coconut oil is that its high content of myristic acid increases cholesterol strongly and the palmitic acid also increases cholesterol.[4,5]  Even though coconut oil itself does not contain cholesterol because it is a vegetable product, its fatty acids produce a significant cholesterolemic response in the body.

One tablespoon of coconut oil (about 14 grams) provides 13.2 grams of saturated fat which is 65% of the Recommended Daily Allowance.  This makes it difficult to add other sources of healthier dietary fats without exceeding the saturated fat allowance.  Unfortunately, it is not possible to separate the fatty acids with potential beneficial effects from the ones that increase cholesterol.

Coconut oil may not be a good dietary fat, but when used as a skin moisturizer, it is as effective and safe as mineral oil.[6]  In addition, applied topically as a cream or lotion, coconut oil has antimicrobial properties against yeast infections such as Candida[7], and antifungal properties against Trichophyton[8] which is the fungus that causes tinea fungal infections like ringworm, athlete’s foot and jock itch.  The antifungal properties of coconut oil may be due to its content of medium chain fatty acids such as capric acid.[9]

Learn more about the effect of dietary fats on Cholesterol

Learn more about Fats

[1] M-P. St-Onge, P.J.H. Jones, “Greater rise in fat oxidation with medium-chain triglyceride consumption relative to long-chain triglyceride is associated with lower initial body weight and greater loss of subcutaneous adipose tissue”, International Journal of Obesity 27: 1565–1571 (2003).

[2] Hornung B, Amtmann E, Sauer G., “Lauric acid inhibits the maturation of vesicular stomatitis virus”, J Gen Virol. 1994 Feb;75 (Pt 2):353-61.  PMID: 8113756

[3] Nakatsuji T, Kao MC, Fang JY, Zouboulis CC, Zhang L, Gallo RL, Huang CM., “Antimicrobial property of lauric acid against Propionibacterium acnes: its therapeutic potential for inflammatory acne vulgaris”, J Invest Dermatol. 2009 Oct;129(10):2480-8. Epub 2009 Apr 23.  PMID: 19387482

[4] Hegsted DM, McGandy RB, Myers ML, Stare FJ, Quantitative effects of dietary fat on serum cholesterol in man. Am J Clin Nutr. 1965 Nov; 17(5):281-95.

[5] Martijti B Katan, Peter L Zock, and Ronald P Mensink, Effects of fats and fatty acids on blood lipids in humans: an overview, Am J Cli. Nutr., 1994;60(suppl):1017S-1022S.

[6] Agero AL, Verallo-Rowell VM (September 2004). “A randomized double-blind controlled trial comparing extra virgin coconut oil with mineral oil as a moisturizer for mild to moderate xerosis”. Dermatitis 15 (3): 109–16. PMID 15724344.

[7] Ogbolu DO, Oni AA, Daini OA, Oloko AP., In vitro antimicrobial properties of coconut oil on Candida species in Ibadan, Nigeria, J Med Food. 2007 Jun;10(2):384-7.

[8] Garg AP, Müller J., Inhibition of growth of dermatophytes by Indian hair oils, Mycoses. 1992 Nov-Dec;35(11-12):363-9.

[9] Chadeganipour M, Haims A., Antifungal activities of pelargonic and capric acid on Microsporum gypseum, Mycoses. 2001 May;44(3-4):109-12.

Forest Fires in Russia and Floods in Pakistan

The Earth’s weather patterns are changing.  Floods in Pakistan have destroyed many villages and killed thousands of people.  A heat wave in Russia has started forest fires, burned grain fields and filled the air in Moscow with smoke that has doubled the death rate from heart and lung ailments.  These extreme meteorological conditions are examples of events that provide further evidence that global warming is a real threat in our lifetime.

Moscow in the Western part Russia typically has summer temperatures that average 75 degrees Fahrenheit, but this summer has been very hot and very dry with temperatures as high as 100 degrees.  More than 500 forest fires have filled the air with smoke and ignited underground peat-bog fires.  The smoke has filled many buildings, and the State Historical Museum on Red Square was forced to close because it couldn’t stop its smoke detectors from going off.  The cloak of smoke turned the picturesque spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral into gray outlines.  The pedestrians that had to be outdoors had their faces hidden by surgical masks and water-soaked bandanas.

The heat and smoke in Moscow have nearly doubled the mortality rate in recent days.  The health minister, Andrei Seltsovsky, said that the daily death toll had risen from an average of between 360 and 380 to around 700. Ambulance calls were up by about 25% because of increases in heart and lung ailments and strokes.  Many residents are leaving the Moscow area temporarily to escape the polluted air.

In 2009, Russia was the world’s third-largest wheat exporter, but this year’s severe drought has destroyed at least 20 percent of the harvest and the fires have burned many fields.  Global commodity prices for wheat have been climbing since June as a result.  Fearing domestic deficits, Russia has imposed a ban on wheat exports and this has pushed prices even higher.

While Russia is suffering droughts and sweltering record temperatures, Pakistan has been deluged by torrential rains that brought death and destruction to many villages.  Millions of Pakistanis are affected by the worst floods to hit the country in decades, and the heavy rains make it very difficult to deliver supplies to communities in the Swat Valley that have been isolated by the high waters. According to UN estimates, as many as four million Pakistanis face food shortages after floods destroyed up to 570,000 hectares of crops in central Punjab province alone.  The prices for fruits and vegetables were reportedly soaring throughout Pakistan.

Global warming is the increase in the average temperature of Earth’s oceans and surface air.  Most of the temperature increase since the middle of the 20th century has been caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide which results from burning of fossil fuels.  As warming continues, the tawing of the permafrost in the northern latitudes will release methane which is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  The warmer temperatures will evaporate more ocean water and create more violent storms and more unpredictable weather patterns.

Learn more about Earth’s Mass Extinctions

Breakfast Cereals are Highly Processed Foods

2-methylnaphtalene in your cereal

Kellogg’s Froot Loops cereal is a very popular breakfast food that is actively marketed to children in cartoon television commercials.  For some time, it has been known that artificial food dyes from these colorful cereals can impair the performance of hyperactive children.[1]  Recently, Kellogg recalled 28 million boxes of Froot Loops, Apple Jacks, Corn Pops and Honey Smacks cereals because of chemical contamination by 2-methylnaphthalene.  2-Methylnaphthalene is a chemical derivative of naphthalene which is a primary ingredient of mothballs.

The cereals were recalled after consumers reported a strange taste and odor, and some complained of nausea and diarrhea.  Kellogg hired some experts who said that there was “no harmful material” in the products.  The Food and Drug Administration has no scientific data on the impact of 2-methylnaphtalene on human health, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also lacks the basic health data, even though the agency has been seeking that information from the chemical industry for 16 years.

The EPA information for 2-methylnaphthalene indicates that the substance causes pulmonary alveolar proteinosis which is characterized by an accumulation of phospholipids in the alveolar lumens and white protuberant nodules in the lungs. The best guess that the EPA can make is that the oral Reference Dose (RfD) of a daily exposure to the human population (including sensitive subgroups) that is likely to be without an appreciable risk of deleterious effects during a lifetime is 0.004 mg/kg-day.[2]

Breakfast cereals are very convenient for busy parents, but there is a price to pay.  The dyes and the high sugar content do not provide the best nutrition for our children.  There are better alternatives to the highly processed foods, but you have to read labels carefully.

[1] Swanson JM, Kinsbourne M., Food dyes impair performance of hyperactive children on a laboratory learning test, Science. 1980 Mar 28;207(4438):1485-7.  PMID: 7361102

[2] 2-Methylnaphthalene (CASRN 91-57-6) [link]