nutrition

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Chia Seed Alert: Superfood, Yes, But They Landed One Man In The ER

photo: Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR

photo: Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR

Confession: I eat chia seeds everyday. I feed them to my children. They make me feel full and satisfied and, yes, I’m a sucker for foods touted as “super” even though I know deep down it’s just marketing.

I may be crazy, but I’m also trendy: chia seeds are everywhere, in energy bars and smoothies, atop yogurt parfaits and at the core of crunchy kid snacks. Good Morning America called chia seeds the “it” food of 2013.

And they really are good for you: “a rich source of fiber, protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids,” according to an NIH publication.

But this week, my chia euphoria took a hit. “Despite potential health benefits, chia seeds may pose a risk if they are not consumed properly, according to new research,” said the Medline headline.

A case report presented by a North Carolina GI doctor describes a scary case of chia seeds gone bad: a 39-year-old man spent several hours in the emergency room under anesthesia after eating no more than a tablespoon of dry chia seeds followed by a glass of water.

The seeds, which can absorb up to 27 times their weight in water, apparently expanded post-ingestion and completely blocked the man’s esophagus, according to the doctor who handled the case, Rebecca Rawl, MD, MPH, a gastroenterology fellow at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.

I spoke to Rawl, and she told me the story of the chia seed blockage — believed to be the first report of its kind. She presented her poster, titled “Watch It Grow: Esophageal Impaction With Chia Seeds,” earlier this week at the American College of Gastroenterology’s annual meeting in Philadelphia. It began innocently enough, she said:

The man arrived at the hospital and said he had this feeling of pain at the top of his stomach and couldn’t swallow anything — “not even his own saliva.” Hospital staff took him in for an upper endoscopy and the imaging clearly showed the culprit: puffed up chia seeds.

What did it look like?

Rawl said:

It was a gel of these seeds, the consistency was similar to Playdoh — not solid, but not a liquid. Continue reading

Good Potato, Bad Potato: War Over Starchy Spud Rages On

Hideya HAMANO/flickr

Hideya HAMANO/flickr

By Alvin Tran
Guest Contributor

Potatoes, it turns out, are political.

At least in the cutthroat world of food and nutrition where, increasingly, what we eat is a highly partisan, hotly debated and frustratingly gridlocked battle pitting health policy types against one another.

Here’s where the potatoes come in:

On one side of the battle, you’ll find politicians, farmers and advocates lobbying for potatoes to become a part of the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, saying they are cheap and potentially nutritious. On the other, you’ll find researchers, including many doctors from the Institute of Medicine, steering patients away from potatoes and saying that Americans are currently consuming too much of the starchy vegetable.

As a doctoral student in nutrition, I often find myself caught in the crossfire of such food battles, whether they’re over the health benefits of dark chocolate, red wine, coffee or my current fixation: potatoes. All too often, friends, family members and even strangers on the bus beg for a little simplicity: they just want to know if certain foods are “good” or “bad.”

Unfortunately, things are rarely so simple and, like many foods that have become mired in controversy, nuances around the relative benefits or ills of potatoes have been obscured in the rhetoric.

Some specifics:

For starters, potatoes contain a large amount of carbohydrates and they have a high glycemic load – meaning they are quickly digested. Foods that have high glycemic loads generally cause blood sugar and insulin levels to rapidly spike and may cause a person to feel hungry again shortly after eating a meal.

According to The Nutrition Source, a publication of the Harvard School of Public Health that acts as a source of research-based nutrition information, previous research studies have linked diets high in potatoes and other rapidly digested carbs to chronic health outcomes, including diabetes and heart disease.

The findings from a new study, published in early September, suggested that a low-carb diet, compared to one that is low-fat, may be more effective for weight loss and in reducing the risk of heart-related health problems.

Nutrition researchers, however, have raised concerns over the study’s findings. For example, in a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, David L. Katz, a nutritionist and the founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, is quoted saying that diets focused on eliminating solely one item, such as carbs, aren’t always good and can actually be harmful: “Our fixation on a particular nutrient at a time has been backfiring for decades…”
Continue reading

When Good Parents Pack Bad Lunches: Study Finds Kids’ Food Falls Short

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

Busted. So busted.

I’ve been meaning to write about this new Tufts study on the nutritional sins of the lunches kids bring to school. (No, it’s not just the cafeterias with their “vegetable” ketchup.)

But the spurts of guilt kept deterring me — the guilt of a mother who has been known to fill a lunchbox with Sun chips, alphabet cookies, challah and nothing else. Not even a pretense of a vitamin.

So I’m thrilled that the Boston Globe’s Beth Teitell has taken it on: At Lunch, Home-Packed May Not Mean Healthy.

Over 40 percent of U.S. schoolchildren bring their lunches to school on a given day.

Bottom line: It looks like the lunches that most kids bring to school are nutritionally pathetic. When researchers examined — and documented in photos — the lunches of more than 600 Massachusetts third- and fourth-graders in six public school districts, the meals almost all flunked. From the press release:

[Lead author Jeanne] Goldberg and colleagues compared students’ lunch and snack items to federal National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and Child and Adult Food Care Program (CAFCP) standards, respectively. They found that only 27% of the lunches met at least three of the five NSLP standards, and only 4% of snacks met at least two of the four CAFCP standards, both of which emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low- or non-fat dairy.

The findings highlight the challenges associated with packing healthful items to send to school. “When deciding what to pack, parents are juggling time, cost, convenience, and what is acceptable to their children. Unfortunately, these factors are not always in harmony with good nutrition,” Goldberg said.

“Lunches were comprised more of packaged foods than anything else,” Goldberg said. “Almost a quarter of the lunches lacked what would be considered an entrée, such as a sandwich or leftovers, and were instead made up of a variety of packaged snack foods and desserts.” Continue reading

Project Louise: New Habit? It’s In The Bag

(BeWellPhilly)

(BeWellPhilly)

The Salad Club is dead. Long live the Salad Club!

Way back in January, in the early days of Project Louise, my fabulous colleague Jessica Coughlin made an offer I couldn’t refuse: She would bring in salad ingredients every day, and I would eat them.

We’re lucky at WBUR to have a well-equipped staff kitchen, so it was easy to take whatever showed up in the bag and make a delicious, huge salad. Other folks in the office soon noticed this development and wanted a piece of it, and so the Salad Club was born.

For a small – I mean really, really small – monthly fee, Jess would bring in all kinds of wonderful greens from her garden, along with produce from Allandale Farm, great dressings and other assorted treats. The other four Salad Club members, including me, could also bring in whatever garnishes and accompaniments we wanted to add.

Nirvana ensued.

But, like so many good things, it couldn’t last forever. Two weeks ago, Jess announced with regret that because of vacation, moving, and the increasing work demands of her despotic boss (that would be me), she just didn’t have the bandwidth anymore to keep doing this.

Despair ensued.

But then a funny thing happened. Continue reading

Mindset Can Boost Metabolism? Not So Fast…

(Gravity_Grave via Compfight)

(Gravity_Grave via Compfight)

Would that it were so. That just thinking that what you eat is an indulgent treat could diminish your hunger later and ramp up your calorie-burning.

The possibility arose from a 2011 study that was just recently described in an NPR report headlined “Mind Over Milkshake: How Your Thoughts Fool Your Stomach.” It describes what happened when clinical psychologist Alia Crum mixed up a giant batch of vanilla milkshake, then labeled cups of it differently for two groups of subjects: Some were told it was a virtuous low-calorie drink while others were told it was a decadent indulgence.

Crum reported that when people thought they’d just indulged, their bodies — specifically their levels of ghrelin, a hunger-related hormone — responded as if they’d taken in more calories than people who believed they’d had a low-cal shake. Possible moral of story: Your beliefs about the food you eat — based on, say, reading labels — could affect how your body responds.

It’s a provocative thought and a fun yarn — and a super-fun video, at the bottom of this post — but perhaps a bit too fun. The reality checkers at Nutrition Action – which is put out by the nonprofit Center For Science in the Public Interest — have just responded to the story with a big “Really?” And a headline: “Can Your Mindset Boost Metabolism? It’s not as straight-forward as one recent study suggests.”

An excerpt:

First of all, the study never measured ghrelin’s effect on metabolism (or even how much food the participants ate at their next meal). Nor have others.

“If you give animals ghrelin injections either subcutaneously or directly into the brain, they increase their food intake, increase their body weight, and burn less fat,” says Jenny Tong, an associate professor of endocrinology and a ghrelin expert at the University of Cincinnati who was not involved in the milkshake study. But giving ghrelin to cancer patients who are losing weight doesn’t help much, she says. Continue reading

Tracking The Rising Backlash Against Sugar

Years ago, on my daughter’s first birthday, my mother-law, an avid cook, baked her a cake. I don’t remember if it was chocolate or layered. What I do remember is forbidding my baby from eating it — not even a nibble. Why, I thought, would I introduce processed sugar into a one-year-old’s diet when she’d been perfectly content with avocados and bananas? “Don’t you want to see pure joy on her face?” asked one friend. Yeah, sure, but not from frosting.

Needless to say, the birthday cake prohibition triggered a bit of a backlash among some family members, and earned me labels like “rigid” and “crazy.”

But these days, with the huge national backlash against sugar — from the new film “Fed Up” and Eve Schaub’s popular family memoir, “Year Of No Sugar,” to Mark Bittman’s regular columns hammering on the message of sugar’s toxicity — I feel somewhat vindicated.

Here’s a snippet from Bittman’s latest, “An Inconvenient Truth About Our Food” on why “Fed Up” is such an important film:

The experts carry the ball. The journalist Gary Taubes calls the “energy balance” theory — the notion that all calories are the same, and that as long as you exercise enough, you’ll avoid gaining or even lose weight no matter what you eat — “nonsense.” One Coke, we learn, will take more than an hour to burn off. The pediatrician Rob Lustig, a leading anti-sugar campaigner, notes that “we have obese 6-month-olds. You wanna tell me that they’re supposed to diet and exercise?” David Ludwig, another M.D., notes that there is no difference between many processed foods and sugar itself, saying you can eat a bowl of cornflakes with no added sugar or a bowl of sugar with no added cornflakes and “below the neck they’re the same thing.” Lustig reminds us that anyone can develop metabolic syndrome: “You can be sick without being fat; this is not just a problem of the obese.”

And so on. Senator Tom Harkin says, “I don’t know how they (the food industry) live with themselves,” comparing them to the tobacco industry. Bill Clinton says, effectively, “We blew it,” when it came to this struggle.

The movie has some splendid moments: A mother cries at the difficulty of the choice she must make between giving her child what she wants and giving her what’s best. Her struggle is common, and she’s fighting against an almost overwhelming tide of marketing and, yes, even addiction. A school lunch worker, speaking of the fact that few kids choose the healthy option at lunch, says, “You can’t choose for them.” But they are children; we must choose for them. Not only are their parents not present, but their parents often don’t know what’s best.

Just to be clear, this isn’t simply rationalizing my own personal food obsessions (though there’s some of that) or about our cultural sickness around achieving “thigh gap” thinness. It’s about overall health — for instance, heart disease. Continue reading

Your Brain On Junk Food: ‘Making Us Crazy’ — But Might Fish Help?

By Suzanne E. Jacobs
CommonHealth intern

An urban planner and a biochemist walk into a seafood restaurant.

Okay, that joke’s going nowhere, but last week an urban planner and a biochemist did walk into a classroom at MIT. In a talk titled “Junk Food and the Modern Mind,” the unusual duo explained to a room full of people how seafood’s effects on the human brain could bridge their seemingly disparate fields.

The urban planner was Lynn Todman, a visiting scholar at MIT. Todman has spent the past nine years working to improve mental health and reduce violence among residents of some of Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods.

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

Last year, Todman held a focus group with adult men in Chicago. At one point, she recalled, one of the men said, “This food is making us crazy,” referring to the unhealthy options common in urban food deserts. Having read up on studies linking nutrition and aggression, Todman took what he said seriously.

“Now, I’ve been doing community based work for a long time, and I know that residents often understand social realities long before we do in the academy, and even though their understanding might be shaped by a series of anecdotes strung together to suggest a trend or pattern, I attribute very real meaning to what residents say about their communities and the observations about the world that they live in,” she said.

Enter Capt. Joe Hibbeln, the biochemist.

Hibbeln, who is also a psychiatrist, works at the National Institutes of Health as a nutritional neuroscientist and is one of the world’s leading experts on the role of fats in brain development.

His claim: a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids and low in omega-6 fatty acids can make people happier and less aggressive. Continue reading

Study: In ‘Healthy’ Fast Food Ads, Kids Mostly Just See French Fries

Just watch the video here and you’ll immediately get the gist of this study. To sum up: when fast food companies try to advertise to children their “healthier” dining options, (like apple slices) the kids, for the most part, don’t see beyond the fries.

The takeaway, according to researchers at Dartmouth, is that these ads from fast food giants like McDonald’s and Burger King “don’t send the right message.”

Here’s more from the Dartmouth news release:

In research published March 31, 2014 in JAMA Pediatrics, Dartmouth researchers found that one-half to one-third of children did not identify milk when shown McDonald’s and Burger King children’s advertising images depicting that product. Sliced apples in Burger King’s ads were identified as apples by only 10 percent of young viewers; instead most reported they were french fries.

Other children admitted being confused by the depiction, as with one child who pointed to the product and said, “And I see some…are those apples slices?”

The researcher replied, “I can’t tell you…you just have to say what you think they are.”

“I think they’re french fries,” the child responded. Continue reading

The Distrust Diet: Can Suspicion, Anger And Disdain Help Us Lose Weight?

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

America is in, to quote the title of a new book, “A Big Fat Crisis.”

The crisis in question is what the surgeon general nominee, Dr. Vivek Murthy, this week called the defining public health challenge of our time. So we need more than ever to understand,”The Hidden Forces Behind The Obesity Epidemic — And How We Can End It,” to quote the subtitle of that new book.

Author Deborah Cohen, an MD and senior scientist at the RAND Corporation, makes two powerful points (among others):

• Given human nature — particularly all the ways we’re hard-wired to perceive and eat food — the current food environment (or “food swamp,” as she puts it) pushes most of us willy nilly into extra weight, and we cannot realistically expect most people to have the superhuman self-control needed to resist it.

Dr. Deborah Cohen (courtesy)

Dr. Deborah Cohen (courtesy)

• Given that obesity has become a major public health problem, it is time for the government to step in, as it has in past public health crises — including, most classically, bringing in better sewage systems in the 19th century to stem water-borne diseases like cholera. Government measures could range from restricting displays of junk food to rating restaurants on how healthy their menus are.

I leave it to others to debate those central messages; I asked Dr. Cohen instead to expand on a more minor point that particularly rang true for me. On page 184, she includes this little coping tip: “Look at the current food environment and purveyors of processed foods with suspicion.” She writes:

“If we start viewing the worst offenders in the food and beverage industries with disdain, their efforts will fail to persuade us to buy their products. We will have inoculated ourselves against companies that sell us junk foods and that advertise and market those foods relentlessly. The best thing about this approach is that we won’t have to use up any of our willpower or limited cognitive capacity to reject these unhealthy foods — we will say no automatically, as we do when faced with anything suspicious.”

Recent books and media coverage can certainly help fan our suspicion, particularly the rising criticism of “Big Food,” and marketers whose products have been clearly shown to be obesogenic — soda, candy, junk food in general. Personally, I’ve found my own food attitudes shifting as my distrust of food-makers has risen, as I’ve read more about how marketers develop “hyper-palatable” foods to hook us, and stores design their shelves to maximize impulse buying. (In fact, Dr. Cohen cites findings that supermarkets often gain more income from vendors who pay for the prominent placement of their foods than from selling the food itself.)

It’s reached the point that, if I find a truly indefensible bit of junk food in my pantry, I may declare it “non-food” — “They only want us to think that it’s food, but it has no redeeming nutritional value whatsoever!” — and throw it out. My tainted attitude vastly diminishes any appeal it may have. Eating it would make me a sucker.

We’re being tricked into spending our limited resources on food that will lead to chronic disease.

So Dr. Cohen’s prescription for suspicion made sense to me, and I asked her to expand on it further: Can we really use our own disdain and distrust to lose weight and improve our health?

Our conversation, edited:

Deborah Cohen: First, I want to say that I actually think that trying to have each person solve this problem on their own is doomed to failure, because the environment is so powerful and it affects us in ways that we can’t always recognize. Unless we can control the environment, we’re not going to be able to control ourselves very well. That’s for most people. Yet there will be some people who can take this advice and put it to good use to lose weight, but that’s not going to be everybody.

Point taken, and I must say, I found your emphasis on the power of these automatic responses to food, that most of us cannot control, very comforting, because it has long baffled me that so many of us — including me — can accomplish so many other things but not lose unwanted weight. So how can distrust help us?

The easiest things to give up are junk food items like candy, sugar-sweetened beverages, chips. Let’s start there, because those are generally very recognizable, and they’re placed in our faces everywhere we go. If we can look at those items and think, ‘Those are being made to trick me, to dupe me and to take my money’ it will be easier to resist them. If you think about a bag of potato chips, that might be less than half a potato in there, the ingredients might cost a few pennies, but they’re going to charge you a dollar or more. The ingredients are cheaper than the labor, packing and advertising that are used to sell them.

So if we think that junk food is ripping us off, maybe we’re going to be less likely to buy it. We’re being ripped off financially, we’re being tricked because this food will increase our risk for chronic disease, and they’re exploiting our human nature to want something quick, convenient and tasty. So be suspicious.

Also, think about sugar-sweetened beverages. Continue reading

Project Louise: When Wanting To Work Out Just Doesn’t Work Out

Maybe just a handful ... (bowenmurphy via Creative Commons/Flickr)

Maybe just a handful … (bowenmurphy via Creative Commons/Flickr)

By Louise Kennedy
Guest contributor

Welcome to February, the month when trainers and gym regulars alike note a falling-off in the crowds that appeared right after New Year’s. Resolutions are a wonderful thing, but without a sustainable plan, apparently, they don’t last much beyond Groundhog Day.

I wish I could report that I’m an exception to this rule. But somehow I went through all of last week without getting to the gym once.

It stings to write that, perhaps especially because in my very first Project Louise post I declared that my pride would keep me from reporting that “I didn’t get to the gym at all, I ate Cheez-Its and Chardonnay for dinner every night, and I feel pretty miserable about all that but I’m not about to change.”

Really, though, it’s not quite that bad. I only ate Cheez-Its once, and we were out of Chardonnay. (Besides, Cheez-Its really call for a red, don’t you think?)

More seriously, here’s what gives me a sliver of hope amid the frustration and disappointment in myself: I do feel pretty miserable about it, but I am absolutely committed to making a change. And so I am trying to use this past week the way Coach Allison has encouraged me to: as an opportunity to observe what’s working and what isn’t, rather than as yet another chance to beat myself up.

So what happened? For one thing, I chose to focus on eating more healthfully – following the DASH diet I wrote about last week – and, in my case, that meant taking back control of the family cooking. (My husband had been doing the lion’s share, which was logistically very helpful, but his repertoire focuses on spaghetti and meat loaf, and I’ve been wanting to amp up the vegetables and salads for quite a while.) Because I often work until 5:30 or later, I needed to do a lot of meal prep in the mornings – and that meant I wasn’t getting out the door in time to go to the gym.

Beyond that, though, there were a couple of days when I just couldn’t drag myself out of bed. I thought I was getting a cold; I was also babying my knee a bit – one of the earlier glitches I hadn’t mentioned here, because it’s flat-out embarrassing, is that when I was running late for my first training session, I tripped on the stairs and banged up my knee. Three weeks later, it’s still swollen and sore.

Sleep! That’s the biggest problem.

The maybe-a-cold and the still-hurting knee were enough to make me go to the doctor; the nurse practitioner I saw ruled out a sinus infection and said the knee was just a bad bruise. So I’ve been icing it, and it’s getting better, but slowly. And it still hurt enough that I was anxious about aggravating it with squats and lunges – or at least that’s what I told myself when I hit the snooze button.

Sleep! That’s the biggest problem. I am a night owl, a tendency deeply reinforced by years of working evenings and nights; left to my own devices, I would go to sleep around 1 a.m. and get up at 8:30 or 9. Children make that pretty much impossible, obviously, but even so I have spent years sleeping till the last possible second – 7:43, if you must know – that will let me get my daughter to kindergarten on time. (The high school sophomore, mercifully, gets himself to the bus, except on those days when I drive him to a 5:45 workout – but I didn’t do that last week, either.) So, even though early morning seems like the only part of my day that I can reclaim, I am finding it really, really hard to make myself consistently get out of bed at 5:30 or 6. Continue reading