Friday, March 25, 2011

3 Things an Expert in Nutrition Wants You to Know

I've been such the lame blogger lately!  I've seen so many interesting things that I keep filing away as blog topics, but no blogging occurs.  It's been a crazy few weeks with my dog eating raisins (note to self: conduct research on why dogs eat things which make them die a slow painful death without $500 of medical intervention), professional commitments (Dr. Dork conferences), and then amidst it all, there's my feeble attempts to combat my own personal suburban sprawl (aka, my ever-growing back side).  

Whenever I get busy, I turn to music to alleviate that suffocating feeling.  Here's what I've been singing:

I'm busy busy dreadfully busy
You've no idea what I have to do.
Busy busy shockingly busy
Much much too busy for you.

It's a Veggie Tales classic.  I think it was #1 on the Vegetable Pop Charts-Cruciferous and Leafy in the late '90s.  

What I've been WANTING to do with this blog is a series of posts around what experts in a number of different areas want you to know.  So I'm going to kick it off with my perspective as a Dr. Dork Nutrition Scientist:

1. Just because it's sunny out does not mean you are making vitamin D.  Yes, it's the sunshine vitamin, but your skin can only make vitamin D when the sun is in the right position.  So a sunny day in February will yield no vitamin D for those of us that live in Chicago.  In fact, we're really not making any vitamin D here until around April.  It has nothing to do with how hot it is outside, but more about how many of the sun's UVB rays can actually make it to earth.  My recommendation is that if you're wearing a coat most days (which means it's cold), you'll need to be sure to get vitamin D from your diet (foods or supplements).  From April-October, just a few minutes of sun without sunscreen will make all the vitamin D you need for almost everyone.  

2. There is no substitute for a healthy diet.  I hate even saying this because it's an eye roller...who likes to hear this?  But if you look at the science,  people that eat more vegetables and other plant-based foods and are physically active are healthier and live longer.  It doesn't matter how many smoothies or cleanses or herbs that you take.  Our bodies are pretty smart after all these years and they are not fooled easily.

3. More is not better when it comes to vitamin, mineral, and other supplements.  In fact, more can be bad.  I was at a Dr. Dork conference last month and there was a lot of concern over people's vitamin and mineral intakes.  For example, too much folic acid has been shown to increased risk for breast cancer.  Similarly, calcium supplements have been linked to increased risk of heart attacks.  Vitamin E supplements have also been linked to an increased risk of heart disease.  And here's the important doesn't matter if the vitamin or mineral is a chelated form, or that it's from some mine in the ocean, or that it's a concentrated form derived from vegetables...your body doesn't care.  They can all be equally harmful.  The supplement companies don't want you to know this and often, they will mis-represent the scientific evidence.  Sometimes they don't disclose that a study on their product was done in a test tube or rat.  Other times, they talk about how people in a certain tribe or part of the world have been so healthy for GENERATIONS because of this secret, special product.  It seems to get crazier each year.

For most adults (19-60ish years of age), most experts recommend a basic multi-vitamin most days of the week.  I eat my kid's generic chewables when I remember (3-4 days/week) and that works out just fine.  The best place to get information on how much of a certain vitamin or mineral you need is from the Institute of Medicine.  They review the scientific evidence on a regular basis and publish guidelines.  Here is the link.   

And happy Spring everyone!!!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Do You Eat More or Less When You See the Calories on the Menu?

First off, I'm about 7 days behind in every aspect of my life.  I went on a girl's trip to Jackson Hole, WY for 4 days and it set me back almost double that time.  My suitcase is still packed and sitting in my bedroom and my toiletries are in plastic bags in the bathroom.  That is why there's been no blogging this week.  But it was all worth it (see pictures below).

What I have been wanting to blog about all week is a new study that was published this week.  But first, a little background:

States like New York and California started requiring fast food establishments to post the calories of their products on the menu in the hopes that people will use this information to lose or maintain their body weight.  The regulators pushing this legislation "felt" that it was a good idea.  There was no data to suggest that it was a good idea, but they just thought it was.  Dr. Dorks of Nutrition (like me) were a little apprehensive about it all.  Without data, how do we know what the impact would be on the public at large?  Plus, it costs the food industry A LOT of money to not only generate that information, but to place it on their menus (not to mention that the information can vary widely depending on ingredients used and preparation method).  And of course, they are going to pass the costs on to their consumers.  So who wins?

Well, it appears that everyone loses.  The restaurants spent all that time and money to provide that information and the studies are showing that the posted calories either have no effect or in some cases, make people eat MORE calories.  No one really knows why people eat more calories, but it may have to do with people's perceptions of how many calories they really need.  For example, if you thought you should eat 2500 calories a day to lose weight, an 800 calorie salad for lunch sounds like a fine choice.  Why pick the dry lettuce and vinegar salad for 400 calories when the 800 calorie salad sounds a lot better and heck, it's only 800 calories!  

But unfortunately, most people do not know how many calories they really need to maintain or lose weight.  And even fewer people really want to count them; they may roughly estimate in their heads and forrgettabboutit.  

The only establishment (based on the few studies that have been conducted to date) where people made better choices after seeing the calories is Starbucks!  And it wasn't on the drinks, but on the food...and I get that.  The last time I had a Reduced Fat Banana Chocolate Chip Coffee Cake was the day that I found out it had almost 400 calories.  But here's the thing...the people that frequent Starbucks are, on average, the people that don't need to lose a lot of weight.  They tend to be more interested in their health.  So the healthy become healthier and those that are really overweight and with poor health do not benefit.  There must be a way to help everyone, regardless of race and socioeconomic status and genetics...I just don't know how yet.  But this is what I think about every day that I go to work.      

Do you read the calories on menus?  Do you choose your order based on the calorie information?  Just wondering...I actually like to see that information and I do make choices based on the calories.  Anyone else?

And now for the personal stuff...

If you haven't been to Jackson Hole, I highly recommend it.  Its at the bottom of the Grand Tetons (and I learned that teton means breast in French).  The people are fabulous (except for our maitre d at this fancy restaurant who hilariously, didn't know the specials because he "missed the meeting" and didn't know the desserts they severed either...yet he'd been working there for quite a while...and still I bought a bottle of soap that cost $30).  

I didn't ski, but it was still amazing.  I saw my first moose in the wild:

Here we are hanging with girlfriends at the house, who are some of the most fabulous women that I know:

And I even went to a cowboy bar where the bar seats were saddles:

All and all, a great girl's weekend!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

When Exercise is Bad for Your Heart

Several friends have sent me links to a scientific study that hit the media this week as a means to justify their sedentary in, "See I told you exercise is bad for you!"

The study looks at medical images of the hearts of competitive endurance athletes more than 50 years of age.  Turns out, those athletes that had exercised the most over their lifetime had more damage to their heart muscle.  Is that a reason not to exercise???

Alas my friends, no.  It suggests that you may not want to become an ultra-marathoner over a lifetime.  It suggests that if you are an ultra-marathoner or if you consistently exercise hours a day every day over a lifetime that you may want to talk to your physician about your heart.  But it doesn't mean you should not exercise at all.

This study illustrates something Dr. Dorks refer to as "the therapeutic window".  In normal-people-talk, this translates to "get what you need, no more/no less".  Here is the concept:

Too little of X: Bad
Just the right amount of X: Good
Too much of X: Really bad

The "just the right amount" category is known as the therapeutic window.  It's the amount that you need of 'X' for optimizing health. 

In the world of nutrition, there are several examples of 'X': exercise, folic acid, vitamin D, beta-carotene, vitamin E, dietary fat, alcoholic name a few.  In the case of exercise, too little exercise is associated with things like obesity, constipation, depression, loss of muscle mass, etc.  And too much exercise has been shown to suppress the immune system, resulting in more colds and flu, and now heart damage.  It's best to stay in "the therapeutic window" and follow the recommendations which suggest 30-90 min of daily physical activity most days of the week.

Vitamins and minerals are very similar.  Little can be gained by taking too much of any one nutrient, despite what the bottle or some website tells you.  In some cases, having too much of a nutrient is worse than not having enough.    
I'm off to enjoy what I know will be the "therapeutic window" with some girlfriends in the mountains.  This is what happened last year when I was with them:

I did strange facial expressions and weird things with my hands.  This year, I hope to avoid looking like an least in front of the camera.  But of course I was, am and always will be a giant Dr. Chicago or Wyoming.      

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Is Tuna the Wonderfish?

While I was working out this morning at my gym, I saw the above sign on the wall.  I don't know about you, but I don't really think about tuna very often.  Sure, I order it when I go out for sushi and I love a good tuna fish sandwich, but I certainly don't think of it as "the wonderfish".  In fact, I would debate that.  There are lots of other special fish in the oceans that do pretty cool things, like those that fly, flouders with the eyes that migrate around their bodies, FOUS's (fish of unusual size), etc.  Plus, have you seen a tuna?  

  They're ugly little suckers!

As it turns out, there is such a thing as the Tuna Council and with the support of all the different tuna companies, they are kicking off a big tuna promotion.  There is a quirky website with a strange woman talking about tuna and then lots of recipes (some really good ones).  I guess tuna sales dropped off in the last 5 years and this is an effort to reinvent tuna.  As part of their efforts, we should be seeing signs like the one above all around us soon.   

Personally, I think this is what "killed" tuna:

I have a hard time eating food out of a pouch.  Why?  Because it looks awfully similar to this:
I love my cat (more than what is socially considered normal), but I don't want to eat her food-in-a-pouch.
What will be interesting to me is whether these signs will be around for long.  I'm not a food lawyer, but I've been around the industry long enough to know that the Federal Trade Commission isn't very receptive to signs promoting weight loss without a reminder that it's about eating fewer calories.  Plus, I don't think I've ever seen a clinical trial on "The Tuna Diet".  Given the concerns about mercury in tuna, I don't foresee seeing one.   

I think Mr. Mom had the best slogan all those years ago...  

"Schooner Tuna.  The tuna with a heart." 

For more info on the Tuna Council and their efforts, check out this New York Times article.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Eau d'Asparagus

My day job is conducting clinical trials on the benefits of nutrition on health.  I feel like I'm making a contribution to society.  My research has the potential to improve the quality and quantity of life for many people and to reduce costs associated with health care.  Granted, I'm not identifying cures for cancer or anything, but really, I think almost any research study improves our human existence in some way. Even this one...I think....

Ever notice how after you eat asparagus, there's a distinct and characteristic odor present upon relieving yourself?  Benjamin Franklin did.  He said "a few stems of asparagus eaten shall give our urine a disagreeable odor".  Shakespeare wrote about it too.  If memory serves, I think a reference to this phenomenon even made it into an Austin Powers movie.  I refer to it as the Porcelain Eau d'Asparagus.

I had always just assumed that some plant chemical in the asparagus just happens to smell when it appears in urine.  Coffee is also linked to a characteristic odor in urine.  It's really neither here nor there...just one of those odd things of insignificance.  

But apparently, some Dr. Dorks needed to know more about why.  So, they conducted a clinical trial where they had people smelling the urine of others that had eaten asparagus (seriously).  Turns out, about 10% of people don't make smelly urine after eating asparagus.  Even more strange and interesting, about 10% of people can't smell the asparagus odor in urine...even when it's there.  In fact, it turns out that this is a genetic modification that results in the inability to smell the odor.  There are other genetic modifications out there that result in people not being able to smell sweat or musk.  Again, I'm serious!

How does this research benefit our human existence?  Well....I'm not entirely sure, other than I find it fascinating that people cannot smell certain things.  If only we could choose those things...interesting to think about what each of us would choose as the odor we can't smell!

But regardless of all of the above, asparagus is a yummy, healthy treat that is so easily prepared.  I like to prepare it by breaking off the woody ends, coating in olive oil and lots of salt and pepper, and roasting in the oven at 400 degrees for 15 or 20 minutes.  It's also fabulous in soups and quiches.  

And not that you asked, but I do make "it" and I do smell "it" and up until about an hour ago, I never cared to even think about why.  And I'm not sure I care now, but boy am I craving asparagus!