Sunday, March 29, 2009

My toddlers love of sugary foods...

Today I came across two headlines:

Headline 1: "Children's increased desire to eat sweets has entrenched biological roots, with new research explaining their preference for sugary foods could be linked to actual growth". Study link.

Simply stated, when children are growing they crave sweet foods but this stops in the adolescent years.
The authors observed a change in sugar preference among adolescents and concluded that "the change in sugar preference from high to low during adolescence appears to be associated with the cessation of growth".

My inner thoughts.....
I'm not sure I'm buying into this theory ! BUT as a mother of a child who loves sweet foods, it's somewhat reassuring that she may switch to healthy savory foods and green vegetables in the future. I'm running with this positive thought....

Headline 2: "A specific genetic variation may help explain why some people consume more sugary foods than others". Study link.

In this study, the authors found that a polymorphism in a gene was linked to higher intake of sugars in two different populations. The authors suggest that individual differences in the desire to eat foods high in sugars may be due to a persons genes.

My inner thoughts.....
I'm buying into this theory. It's genetic why my 4 1/2 year old LOVES sweets. For those interested, it's from her father's side of the family. Her father loves ice cream, and her grandmother has a self proclaimed sweet tooth.

With our son, we didn't expose him to anything we considered 'bad', or 'sweet', or 'fried', or 'sugary,' or 'candy-like'. It wasn't until he was 3 years old that he enjoyed the taste of ice-cream. He'd rather savory food and recently was asked his favorite food. His response "a salmon sandwich"! (side note: Because he knows I HATE soda, he'll sneak off with a can if he can get his hands on it ...and he only eats potato chips at parties)

Our daughter, on the other hand, was exposed to sweets earlier, and for the past 4 1/2 years I've assumed her sweet tooth is directly linked to her early exposure to ice cream. As many of us parents know, most of the best laid plans go out the window with the arrival of the second baby. There are no more nap schedules - there are play dates and parties. The eating environment we so carefully established in our kitchens has expanded to the outside world. It becomes impossible to micromanage their eating habits.

I may have studied nutrition for 20 years, but I've only been parenting for 6 1/2 years. So I'm dropping my 'nutrition hat' and I'm speaking as a mother of two active children.
Forgive yourself if they eat some sugary foods....and keep working on introducing better foods into their diets. It's a constant 'work in progress' ! So try to shed the guilt!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Omega-3 Fatty Acids Revisited

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about flaxseed oil and the fact that ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is not efficiently converted to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). To be honest, I'm not up on the literature on fatty acid metabolism - its a complex field in nutrition research. But, a recent report published by the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL) delivered the scientific evidence that consumption of ALA does not deliver the same health benefits as other omega-3* fatty acids. Why ? Because the conversion of ALA to DHA is very low, and the evidence suggests that it is the long-chain n-3 fatty acids (EPA, DHA) that confer the health benefits.
* also know as n-3

What does this mean ? Taking flaxseed oil may not be delivering the health benefits you think!

But what about other plant based oils ? One reader of the blog brought my attention to echium seed oil. Keep in mind, not all sources of n-3 fatty acids are created equally (to complicate things!). Back to nutritional biochemistry - for those interested....
The fatty acid composition of echium oil is different to flaxseed as it contains both ALA and stearidonic acid (SDA) [the desaturation product of ALA], as well as the some omega-6 fatty acids, linoleic acid (LA) and γ-linolenic acid (GLA).

So in essence, echium oil is unusual because it contains substantial amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and different types of PUFA (i.e. both n-3 and n-6 fatty acids). So consuming this plant-based oil may deliver different health benefits. The fatty acid, SDA, may have similar biological properties to EPA (the major n-3 fatty acid in fish oil). This should be discussed in a future blog i.e. the health benefits to consuming echium oil.

So what's my bottom-line: In a past blog I had stated
"If you are a vegan/vegetarian, including plant sources of n-3's in your diet is essential, and you should eat flaxseed oil and other sources of ALA".
But based on my recent readings, I'm not sure taking flaxseed oil is really delivering any health benefits. It appears that the conversion of ALA to DHA is very low. Since our bodies are reliant on DHA from dietary/supplement sources, the best of which are marine-based, I'm back to encouraging you to eat fish and fish oil supplements.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Brain Foods

Keeping your brain alert (a challenge for most of us!)

In no particular order, 6 potentially benefit foods to keep us smart:
  1. Fish: The omega-3-fatty acids [mainly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)] may offer protection against Alzheimer's disease risk and may slow mental decline in people with very mild Alzheimer's disease.
  2. Walnuts: The alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), and other compounds found in walnuts, act as antioxidants to protect brain cells and brain function.
  3. Blueberries: Rich is antioxidants, blueberries protect against age-related declines in cognitive function.
  4. Coffee: The caffeine may protect against mild memory and thinking problems that come with old age.
  5. Gingo Biloba: This chinese herbal contains biologically active compounds that may improve cognitive function.
  6. Dark chocolate: The cocoa bean is rich in naturally occurring flavanols and other substances that could enhance blood flow in the brain and improve brain function.

Deep Fried Snickers Bar

OK. Despite many, many, many (note the many) years of studying 'nutrition', tonight I enjoyed eating a deep fried snickers bar (smothered in whipped cream, melted chocolate and ice-cream). Guilty. But here's the kicker....I didn't feel one bit guilty. I can only guess the number of calories and the % saturated fat, but I'm not going to...not tonight. So if I ever sound like I'm preaching, you can remind me of the "Deep fried snickers bar"....bad I tell you, bad, but oh so good ! Good company and bad food....well sometimes thats just what one needs !!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Question Everything

Question: "Can you tell me why flaxseed oil is so good ?"
Some background information:
  • Polyunsaturated fats come in 2 forms: omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
  • One omega-3 fatty acid is essential (i.e. it can only come from diet) - alpha linoleic acid (ALA).
  • Good sources of ALA include green vegetables, walnuts, soybean oil, canola oil and flaxseed oil.
  • Flaxseed oil is the richest plant source of ALA.
  • Your body converts ALA into longer chain omega-3's, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
  • EPA and DHA also occur naturally in some foods, such as fish.
You have probably heard a lot about the heart-health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. As mentioned above, ALA is a omega-3 fatty acid, but it is the longer chain omegas (EPA and DHA) that provide the health benefits. And so while flaxseed provides ALA, which is converted into the the longer-chain, omega-3 fatty acids, it would be more efficient to eat sources of EPA and DHA. Why? Because these are the fatty acids most strongly linked to improved cardiovascular health.

Bottom line: If you are a vegan/vegetarian, including plant sources of omega-3's in your diet is essential, and you should eat flaxseed oil and other sources of ALA. BUT, if you do eat fish, you should continue to do so because flaxseed oil (or other sources of ALA) is not a substitute for the omega-3's found in fish. This doesn't mean there are no benefits to adding flaxseed oil to your diet, just don't do it at the expense of eating fish. It is recommended that fish should be consumed twice a week.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Goodness of Garlic

I would eat garlic everyday if it wasn't for the fact that I'm a very social person. Once I've enjoyed a meal containing garlic, I become very self conscious, and I immediately begin to regret eating the meal in the first place! But I'm beginning to wonder if the health benefits of garlic outweigh the 'garlic breath' issue. In ancient times, garlic was used to cure all sorts of problems, ranging from flatulence to skin diseases (a good enough reason to start eating garlic if you ask me). But more recent scientific evidence suggests that garlic can lower blood pressure, improve blood cholesterol and may be a powerful anti-carcinogenic.

For years, a work colleague has been recommending that I eat a fresh clove of garlic DAILY ! She begins each day by eating a clove of garlic and swears this is why she hasn't been sick for years. I'm beginning to buy into this 'garlic goodness' mantra of hers ! And so the motivation to write this blog.

First some interesting facts about garlic

  • Garlic (Allium sativum L. ) is a species of the onion family.
  • Because of its distinct odor, garlic is sometimes called the "stinking rose."
  • Over 60% of the garlic consumed worldwide is produced in California.
  • Garlic was worn, hung in windows, or rubbed on chimneys and keyholes, to scare off vampires!

Fresh garlic versus bottled garlic: Is there a difference ?

Once you crush fresh garlic it becomes chemically unstable and allicin (a compound found in the garlic) begins to decompose to create a compound called sulfenic acid. This is the powerful antioxidant delivering the health benefits associated with garlic. The key point to consider is the following: "A study found that only crushed garlic and microwaved crushed garlic was biological activity". Perhaps you're thinking "great, I've got a jar of peeled crushed garlic sitting in my fridge that I frequently use. I'm getting the health benefits of garlic in my diet". You'd be wrong. There is a trade off to the ease and convenience of the bottled garlic - it doesn't contain the active component you find in fresh garlic. Japanese scientists found that garlic stored in water at room temperature lost about half its allicin in 6 days, while garlic stored in vegetable oil lost half of its allicin in less than an hour. So although bottled garlic may have some health benefits, it is clearly inferior to that of fresh garlic.

And what about garlic supplements ?

There is no getting away from it - an odorless variety of fresh garlic does not exist - so for this reason many people prefer to take garlic supplements. However, the amount of allicin in these products is questionable, and it varies greatly between products. If you are taking a garlic supplement, check the label to see if it contains allicin powder.

The bottom line: Incorporate fresh garlic into your diet. Saute green vegetables in lots of fresh crushed garlic with olive oil (so easy with the Magic Bullet!). But remember, allicin starts to degrade immediately after it is produced (i.e. once you crush the garlic), so make sure to crush just before cooking. And inform your friends and family that you're on a new garlic kick !

And keep in mind this proverb, "A nickel will get you on the subway, but garlic will get you a seat".

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Random Facts

  1. The French Paradox claims that French people experience lower coronary heart disease death rates compared to Americans, despite having similar intakes of saturated fat, similar risk factors and the same levels of LDL cholesterol. The suspected reason for this difference ? Red wine.
  2. The phytochemicals found in red wine that are suspected to protect against heart disease are called flavonoids, and the highest concentrations are found in Chianti.
  3. Honey has been shown to be useful in treating wounds and it is an effective cough suppressant.
  4. Which diet works better ? Doesn't appear to matter which macro-nutrients (carbohydrates, fat or protein) you cut from your diet. Reduce you caloric intake - you lose weight. In a recent study, 811 overweight adults were assigned to 1 of 4 diets. After 6 months, average weight loss was similar in all groups (average weight loss 6 kg).
  5. One recent study report that recipe books have increase portion size by 40% over the past 70 years.
  6. Eating eggs does not cause an increase in blood cholesterol levels - saturated fat in other foods is the main offender. Other factors that influence blood cholesterol levels include genetics, smoking, exercise, and being overweight.
  7. How many calories are in an Irish coffee? 220 to 250 depending on the bartender!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Do you believe in Magic ?

Often when I see an infomercial on TV I will say to my husband "oh this looks really good". And without missing a beat he will reply "Nic, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is".

Well last week I headed out to Costco for the basics and I was given strict instructions not to spend frivolously on non-essential items. How does one define a 'non-essential item' ? This was the question I asked myself as I stood in front of the 'Magic Bullet'.
It certainly seemed like an essential item.
"With the Magic Bullet, entertaining has never been easier, or more fun! That's because it's the Ultimate Party Machine!"
OK sounds essential to me ! Sorry, I'm side tracking..........back to nutrition, stay with me, I'm getting there.....

When Kate, my friend, was diagnosed with cancer, she borrowed our friends MB to make daily cancer-fighting smoothies. At this time I suggested trying Dr. Oz's green drink and we talked about her daily smoothies from a nutrition standpoint. But I couldn't help notice her enthusiasm for the MB. She made it sound too good to be true! The idea of making daily smoothies for everyone in the house was appealing and lets not forget those summer cocktails. So right there, in the home goods section of Costco, I grabbed the MB and grinned to myself ( essential !).

We have been drinking smoothies everyday. My children pick out their fruit combination and yogurt flavor, throw it in the cup, mix and drink. My husband, the skeptic, uses it more than once a day, and is still waiting to find something wrong with it....but its been one week and I haven't heard one complaint yet !

I've made pesto, used garlic daily in pasta/vegetable dishes, made asparagus soup (yes!) and even a fresh salsa. I LOVE IT! I've even been heard saying "I'm getting this as a present for my friends 40th Birthday" and "this is my next baby shower gift"!

Now it may break it a month, and my next post may very well be "it was too good to be true". But in the meantime, I plan to use it and enjoy it ! From garlic to cocktails and back.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

How to make sure your man lives longer !

In 5,820 Japanese American men, who were studied from middle-age for up to 40 years, the following 9 key factors to surviving a healthy 85+ years were identified as follows:
  1. High grip strength
  2. Avoidance of overweight
  3. Avoidance of high blood glucose levels
  4. Avoidance of hypertension
  5. Non-smoking
  6. No excessive alcohol consumption
  7. High education level
  8. Avoidance of high triglyceride levels
  9. Having a marital partner (side note: If you ask me, their wives must have taken very good care of them!)
Some tongue in cheek humor, please be advised, this may offend some readers. I guess if you don't want your husbands to live longer, let them drink, smoke, become couch potatoes, eat high fat meals, and definitely don't let them go back to college to get their masters (or any other form of education!)

Friday, March 6, 2009

Random Facts

  • Based on data from a nationally representative sample of youth, an astonishing 73% of adolescent boys and 62% of adolescent girls consume carbonated soft drinks on any given day, of which the vast majority contain sugar rather than nonnutritive sweeteners. (French et al. 2003)
  • In Mexico, obesity rates are accelerating faster than anywhere in the world.
  • A Dunkin Donuts Egg Cheese Croissant Sandwich contains 550 Calories, 34 grams of fat, 41 grams of carbohydrates, 0 grams of fiber. And its equivalent to 14 weight watchers points ! Oh, and if you go for the sausage sandwich, you are up to 630 calories ! (BTW: A chocolate covered donut has 200 calories if its calories you are counting, this is a better choice).
  • On the other hand, a half a cup of Kellogg`s All Bran With Extra Fiber, contains only 50 calories and a whopping 13 grams of dietary fiber!
  • Did you ever notice within a half-hour of eating asparagus, your urine has a very distinctive odor ? This is not true for everyone, only 40 to 50% of people experience this phenomenon! This is because of the excretion of various sulfur-containing compounds.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What's Acrylamide ?

I came across a headline today "Heart study may raise pressure to cut acrylamide levels in snacks".
Cut what from snacks ?? Acrylamide.

Some facts about Acyrlamide
  • Acrylamide is not added to foods. It is a chemical that can form in some foods (particularly carbohydrate-rich foods) during high-temperature cooking processes, such as frying/baking/toasting. It forms from sugars and an amino acid (asparagine) that are naturally present in food.
  • Acrylamide was first detected in foods in 2002 by Swedish researchers who reported a high content in potato chips, breakfast cereals and crisp bread. High levels are found in French fries. For information on acrylamide levels in foods refer to the following page: .
  • In animal studies, high exposure to acrylamide caused cancer. BUT as of yet, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and other government agencies, have not yet determined the exact public health impact, if any, of acrylamide that are found in the much lower levels in foods. Research is ongoing in this area.

I will be interested to see if potato chips now get a bad rap in popular consumer magazines because of acrylamide. Keep in mind the potato chip was first created in 1853, by a Native American named George Crum It contained acrylamide then, just as it does now !

The bottom-line: There is insufficient evidence to suggest its harmful at the levels we consume in foods, but perhaps its another reason not to reach for the French fries and potato chips !

Monday, March 2, 2009

Weight Stigmatization

As parents, we hope our children will never be picked on because of their weight, and we certainly hope our child will never tease their peers about their weight. According to Wikipdeia, the definition of weight stigma refers to "invidiously discriminatory attitudes towards overweight/obese or underweight/thin individuals that influence interpersonal interactions". Weight stigmatization exits -its time to pull your head out of the sand !

This topic is rather distressing but I think its worth posting because as parents, aunts, uncles, caregivers, friends, medical personnel, school counselors and teachers, we need to give it some consideration. I am reading a series of articles dedicated to this topic and some of the points I've taken from it are as follows (and some are my own views).
  • Weight stigmatization exists across all ethnic groups - it is a problem for all youth.
  • An estimated 26% of adolescent girls and 22% of adolescent boys are teased about their weight (Neumark-Sztainer et al, 2002). This is likely an underestimation of the actual truth.
  • In one study, a quarter to one half of adolescents said the teasing bothered them (van den Berg et al. 2008). Again, this is probably an underestimation of the truth.
  • One study found that teenagers who were teased about their weight were more likely to use unhealthy behaviors such as restricting carbohydrates, fasting, taking laxatives, and vomiting.
Deep is upsetting, isn't it ?

Research in this field also indicates that teasing children/adolescents about weight is related to the following problems:
  • Body dissatisfaction
  • Low self esteem
  • Anxiety
  • Increased depression and withdrawal
  • Decreased physical activity
  • Eating disorders
Family members, in particular siblings, may tease each other about their weight. However, the family home should be a safe "no teasing" place for the child. How a family member (in particular caregivers) view a child's body shape, and how they treat that child, is the foundation on which that child builds their self esteem, and how they view their own body image.

What about parents who internalize the idea of 'being thin' and their 'dieting practices', how does this affect a child ? Your children watch your behavior. As one author wrote "Mothers who are obsessed with their weight and hate their bodies teach their daughters to do and feel the same" (Fontaine, 1991). If you do this, you need to stop.

Some of the most widespread consequences of childhood obesity are psychological. The message we need to work on translating to our children is one of 'overall good health'. Pediatric doctors should ask children and teenagers if they are teased about their weight, who is teasing them and the degree to which it bothers them. We need to praise our children for making healthy choices, encourage lots of physical activity and work towards helping our children achieve healthier weights. How do we do this ? Turn off the TV, shut down the computer, take away the video games, stop buying them soda and junk food, and take a sport up with them.....sounds like a lot of work ? It is.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Chewy Fruit Snacks

I am yet to meet a child who doesn't LOVE chewy fruit snacks ! The marketing that goes into these products is excellent - Power Rangers, Princesses, Shrek, Indiana Jones, and the list goes on and on......

Often the packaging of these products states something to catch your eye - "100% Vitamin C", "80 calories", or "fat free". FAT FREE !!! But its certainly not sugar-free. The main ingredients are high fructose corn syrup and sugar.

Recently, a some what more 'sophisticated' (in terms of packaging) chewy fruit has emerged in the market - Florida's Natural Au'some Blueberry Fruit Juice Nuggets. The box contains 8 small packs (0.5 ounces each), smaller than the average packs, and so you are eating fewer calories (50 kcal) and less sugar. The first ingredients are fruit juice and puree from concentrate. But don't be fooled, it contains for the most part, the same ingredients (corn syrup, starch, dextrose) you find in your average 'Shrek' fruit snack.

What do I think of these snacks ? It depends which 'hat' I'm wearing, and whether we are talking about our children's diet or our own diet. I place these foods in the candy category. For adults, if you are eating a balanced, healthy diet, then go ahead and enjoy a bag of these 'organic' fruit nuggets. I consider these as 'discretionary calories' i.e. those calories that can be used ‘at your discretion’ after you've met your other nutrition requirements and as long as you haven't exceeded your daily energy intake. [note: most of us don't carry a nutrition calculator around with us, so keeping track of our energy intake is almost impossible!]. When we talk about discretionary calories, its better to eat something more 'nutrient dense' - so why not reach for a piece of fruit which would give you a lot more 'bang for your buck' ? But this may not satisfy your sweet craving which is probably the reason you've reached for the chewy fruits!

As a parent, I have been guilty of giving these snacks to my children on occasion. My mantra is "It won't hurt every now and then to have a bag of chewy fruit snacks". But as a nutritionist my mantra is "chewy fruit snacks have tooth decay written all over them and so reward your child with a piece of fruit". This is all very good but I've witnessed the meltdowns in the chewy fruit aisle - it not pretty.