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May 1 2012

Nutritionist’s Notebook: Estimating nutrient requirements

My Tuesday question from student readers of NYU’s Washington Square News:

Question: How can we determine our individual caloric, vitamin, carbohydrates, fats and other intake requirements per day based on our own individual weight, height and lifestyle?

Answer: You can’t. You will have to be satisfied with estimates based on measurements performed years ago on a small number of study subjects.

We require calories and nutrients — 40 to 50 separate substances that our bodies cannot make, we must get from food. Because these interact, studying one at a time gives results that may well be misleading.

Early nutrition scientists got “volunteers”— in quotes because study subjects often were prisoners — to consume diets depleted in vitamin C, for example. They waited until the subjects began to develop scurvy, a sign of vitamin C deficiency. Then they fed the subjects the smallest amount of vitamin C that would eliminate symptoms.

Because individuals vary in nutrient requirements, scientists used this data to estimate the range of nutrient intake that would meet the needs of practically everyone.

The Institute of Medicine compiles such data into Dietary Reference Intakes and presents the estimates by sex and age group. You can look up your requirements in DRI tables. DRIs account for the needs of 98 percent of the population. If your requirements are average, you will need less.

Few American adults show signs of nutrient deficiencies, but if you are worried about your own intake of nutrients, you can take a multivitamin supplement. Note, however, that we have no evidence to show supplements make healthy people healthier.

You can estimate calories by looking up everything you eat or drink in food composition tables, but it is easier to weigh yourself at regular intervals. If you are gaining weight, you are eating too many calories for your activity level.

With nutrition, it’s best to get comfortable with estimates and probabilities.

Fortunately, eating a healthy diet takes care of nutrients without your having to give them a thought. Eat your veggies!

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, May 1 print edition. Marion Nestle is a contributing columnist. Email her questions at dining@nyunews.com.

Apr 18 2012

Nutritionist’s Notebook: Consuming Calories

On Tuesdays, I answer questions about nutrition for NYU’s student newspaper, the Washington Square News.  Yesterday’s was about when calories count.

Question: With finals approaching ,many students will be staying up very late. Is the time of day important in relation to when you are consuming most of your calories? What are some good late-night, study snack options for students?

Answer: Having just written a book about calories, they are much on my mind. Here is one take-home lesson from the book. If you look only at body weight, calories are the determining factor. If you eat more calories than you need, you gain weight no matter where the calories come from.

But if you care about health, the source of the calories is crucial. What can be confusing about this distinction is that eating a healthy diet — one with plenty of vegetables, fruits and grains and only occasional junk food — makes it much easier to balance calories.

The two results of what you eat — weight and health — are closely linked.

Does when you eat matter? From a strictly caloric standpoint, no. If you haven’t overeaten during the day, adding calories late at night should not be a problem.

But if you habitually add late-night calories to full meals during the day, you might find your weight creeping up. Some studies show that the more times a day people eat, the more calories they consume. But others find that consuming small amounts of food throughout the day helps people maintain weight. You need to figure out for yourself which pattern works best.

The only way to tell if you are eating the right amount of calories is to weigh yourself regularly. If your weight is going up, you might want to avoid adding calories in late-night snacks.

What’s a reasonable snack? Any real, relatively unprocessed food is always a good choice: fruits, vegetables, nuts, yogurt, cheese, crackers, sandwiches, salads. Even pizza can do the trick if it’s thin crust and not overflowing with cheese.

Apr 10 2012

Nutritionist’s Notebook: Caffeine Cravings

On Tuesdays, I answer questions about nutrition in NYU’s student newspaper, the Washington Square News.   These appear intermittently on the newspaper’s website.  Today’s is about caffeine.

Question: What kind of effect does caffeine have on our metabolism and general health? What is an appropriate amount of caffeine to have? And are certain sources of caffeine better than others? 

Answer: Caffeine is a mild upper. It perks up your central nervous system and makes you feel more alert, energetic and cheery. Caffeine is common in plants, but coffee, chocolate and tea have the most. The amount of caffeine depends on the type, amount used and brewing time, from 30 milligrams for a small cup of weak tea to more than 300 milligrams for some of the larger and stronger Starbucks drinks. When caffeine appears on the labels, you know exactly how much you are getting.

Energy drinks made for adults, like Red Bull, contain about 80 milligrams in an eight-ounce can. Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola and other soft drinks marketed to children have much less — 30 to 40 milligrams in 12 ounces.

People react to caffeine in different ways and, by this stage in your life, you undoubtedly know how much of it you can handle and at what time of the day you can handle it. If you take in more than your personal limit, you may feel nervous, shaky and sleepless. The more caffeine you drink, the more you become accustomed to it and the harder it is to give up. Some researchers think that the mix of sugar with caffeine is what makes some people feel addicted to soft drinks.

Perhaps it’s the caffeine in coffee that makes researchers want to find something wrong with it. I have a thick file of papers claiming that coffee raises the risk for heartburn, cancer, heart disease, infertility, ulcers and many other health problems, but the observed effects are small, inconsistent and unconvincing. When given as a drug, caffeine stimulates urine production and suppresses appetite, but the amounts in all but the strongest coffees are too low to produce such effects. If you get shaky when you drink caffeinated beverages, it’s time to stop.

—A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, April 10 print edition. Marion Nestle is a contributing columnist. Email her questions at dining@nyunews.com.

Additional note on the food politics of caffeineSenatorDick Durbin (Dem-IL) has just asked the FDA to enforce its own rules on drink labeling.  Some makers of high-caffeine “sports” drinks are marketing them as dietary supplements to avoid having to adhere to FDA rules on how much can go into soft drinks.

Mar 27 2012

Nutritionist’s Notebook: Importance of fiber

This semester I answer students questions about nutrition on Tuesdays in the student-run Washington Square News.  Today’s is about fiber.

Question: We tweeted and linked to the article you were cited in The New York Times on Tuesday, and you mentioned the importance of fiber in a diet. How much fiber is good to have in a daily diet, and what does it do for our bodies? What are good sources of fiber — cereal bars, granola bars? How much is too much fiber?

Answer: You, like most Americans, probably get less than half the fiber you need. You can fix that by eating more vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, peas and whole grain breads and cereals. Fiber occurs only in plants.

Eating these foods at every meal will do wonders for your digestive system. They help protect you against obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and even some cancers.

Fiber refers to a bunch of plant carbohydrates that human enzymes cannot digest easily. These come in two types: insoluble and soluble. Insoluble fiber, the kind found in grains, almost completely resists digestion. It has no calories.

But soluble fiber from beans and other vegetables can be digested to some extent by bacteria in your colon. They produce a little energy you can use.

Research shows that people who eat plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole grains with both kinds of fiber develop less chronic disease. But these benefits do not show up in studies using fiber supplements.

This means you are better off eating vegetables than power bars. If you must eat those bars, choose the ones with fruits, nuts and whole grain — real foods — high up on the ingredient list. Watch out for misleading claims about “good source of fiber.”  Check the Nutrition Facts panels — 3 grams is minimal, 5 is better.

If you are not used to eating fruits, vegetable and grains, eating more of them may make you feel gassy. Gradually include more. Your digestive system will be happier, and you will be healthier.

Mar 20 2012

Nutritionist’s Notebook: cooking chicken (of all things)

Every Tuesday I answer a question about food or nutrition in NYU’s student newspaper, the Washington Square News.  My deal with the dining editor is that she sends one question a week and I do the best I can with it.  The questions reflect the kinds of things that NYU undergraduates want to know.

This week, the question is about cooking chicken:

Q.  What are the more cheap and healthy ways for students to buy and cook chicken? What are the health differences between chicken breast/legs/etc.?

A.  Let me answer your second question first.  Chicken is a good source of protein and other nutrients.  Most of the nutritional differences between one part and another are too small to bother mentioning.  The one useful difference is that dark meat has a bit more saturated fat and cholesterol than white meat.  Even so, most of the fat in chicken is in the skin.  Worried about fat?  Remove the skin.

The important nutritional differences result from preparation.  If you add fat during preparation, you are also adding calories (fat has 9 calories per gram as compared to 4 for protein or carbohydrate).

The healthiest way to cook chicken is to bake it in the oven or stir fry it with vegetables.  Put the parts in a baking pan, rub some olive oil on them, and surround them with plenty of garlic, lemon, carrots, or whatever you like.  Bake at 350° until brown.

Buy whole chickens so you aren’t paying someone else to cut it up for you.  Cutting a chicken is easy and YouTube has plenty of videos that explain how to do it.

The cheapest chicken is industrially produced, meaning that the chickens are raised in huge flocks indoors under crowded conditions, treated with antibiotics to prevent illness and promote rapid growth, and are ready to slaughter six weeks after hatching. 

If you don’t want to eat chicken raised this way, you should look for birds that were raised free-range without antibiotics and are Certified Organic, kosher, or halal—if you value such things.   You will have to pay more for such meat but it will taste better. 

You will be supporting a food system that is healthier for chickens, people, and the planet.

Mar 6 2012

Nutritionist’s Notebook: Dining Out Estimations

My Tuesday Q and A for NYU’s Washington Square News:

Question: When you go out to eat, how can you estimate the amount of butter and grease that is used to cook vegetables? How does this detract from the nutritional value of the food?

Answer: If you are eating out, guessing the amount of anything in food calories or fat is next to impossible. You cannot guess accurately unless you are in the kitchen watching what goes into your food, looking up the composition of each ingredient and adding up the nutrients. If you want to try this, the U.S. Department of Agriculture food composition tables are at ndb.nal.usda.gov.

I like a little butter or olive oil on my vegetables. Fat brings out taste and makes vegetables taste delicious.

Fat does other good things to vegetables. Without some fat in your diet, you will not be able to absorb and use beta-carotene and other fat-soluble nutrients.

From a quantitative standpoint, fat provides twice the calories per unit weight than do either protein or carbohydrate. A tablespoon of fat provides about 100 calories. A tablespoon of sugar gives about 45 calories.

That kind of fat is important to health. All food fats — no exceptions — are mixtures of saturated, unsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids but proportions differ. Animal fats like butter are more highly saturated than salad oils.

As for quality, grease sounds pejorative so I assume you mean oils that have been repeatedly reused. Those are best avoided, as are those that have been partially hydrogenated, a process that introduces heart-unhealthy trans fats.

How can you tell fat quantity and quality? If a food looks greasy and smells bad, don’t eat it. It’s unlikely to be good for you.

Email Marion Nestle at dining@nyunews.com.

Feb 29 2012

Nutritionist’s Notebook: healthy snacks

My weekly Q and A for NYU’s student newspaper, Washington Square News

Nutritionist’s Notebook: Snacks on a schedule

by Marion Nestle

Published February 28, 2012

Marion Nestle is the Paulette Goddard professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. She is the author of “Food Politics” and, most recently, “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.” Each week, she will answer student questions about nutrition, health, and food. 

Question: Do you have quick food recommendations for busy students who tend to skip breakfast/lunch or who don’t have time due to busy scheduling? Are there any grab-and-go options that you would recommend?

Answer: From the perspective of nutrition, two principles apply to on-the-go food. Look for fruits and vegetables whenever you can get them, and choose foods that are as unprocessed as possible. The closer you can get to eating basic foods, the more nutrients they contain for their calories — in nutrispeak, they are of high nutrient density.

To see what options might be available, I went to the dining hall at the Kimmel Student Center. Alas, chips are at every counter and cash register. You can do better.

Some healthy choices are obvious: bananas, pears and five kinds of apples. Others are carrot packs, yogurt, hard-cooked eggs, and hummus with pretzels.

You have to search hard for the other interesting options. A helpful manager pointed to snack packs of organic dried banana chips, mangos and goldenberries. Goldenberries look like raisins, which would be another good choice, but I didn’t see any. I also didn’t find any packages of nuts. These are great as long as you don’t eat too many. If you want your dorm cafeteria to carry items like this, ask!

Sandwiches work if they are not too big and unwieldy. The Pret a Manger on Astor Place offers half sandwiches in a stiff, thin cardboard. These are easy to eat on the run.

I avoid power bars. They violate my “no more than five ingredients” rule and I don’t particularly like the way they taste. If I want something sweet, I’ll go for the dark chocolate Brazil nuts I found at Kimmel. If you just eat a couple at a time, they are worth the price.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 28 print edition. Marion Nestle is a contributing columnist. Email her at dining@nyunews.com.

Feb 24 2012

Nutritionist’s notebook: Portion Control

I’ve just agreed to write a Q and A column, Nutritionist’s Notebook, for NYU’s student newspaper, the Washington Square News (WSN).  The columns will appear on Tuesday.   This first one was published on February 22.

This week, WSN welcomes professor-columnist Marion Nestle. A Paulette Goddard professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at NYU, Nestle also co-authored the recently published book “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.” Each week, she will answer student questions about nutrition, health and food.

Question:

What is the importance of size in our portions? What is the best way to judge portions when going out to dinner?

Answer: 

Easy. Large portions make you eat more. If I could teach just one thing about nutrition, it would be this: larger portions have more calories. Funny? Portion size is anything but obvious. Research repeatedly confirms that larger food servings not only provide more calories but also have two other effects. They encourage people to eat more and to underestimate how much they are eating.

A few years ago, I asked Lisa Young, who teaches our department’s introductory nutrition course, to ask her students to guess the number of calories in an eight-ounce Coke and a 64-ounce Double Gulp — yes, such things exist. She did not expect beginning students to know the exact numbers, but did expect them to do the math. To her surprise, the average multiplier turned out to be 3, not 8. How come? Students said that 800 calories in a drink was impossible. No, it is not, as menu labels now reveal.

How to deal with the portion size problem? Use small plates and cups in the dining hall. When eating out, order appetizers, not entrees. Order the small size, or share large portions with friends.

The system is stacked against you and it’s up to you to figure out how to cope with it. Small sizes, for example, usually cost relatively more.

For a long time, I’ve wanted restaurant owners to give a price break for smaller portions. No luck. They say this would put them out of business. We need to make it easier for people to choose smaller portions, which means changes in public policy.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 21 print edition. Marion Nestle is a professor/contributing columnist. To submit your questions, email her at dining@nyunews.com.