Thought Pieces

Dump the Diet Soda

Soda consumption has been mightily scorned as one of the major causes of our nation’s obesity epidemic – studies are quite conclusive that sugary soda consumption is linked with increased obesity and many of its metabolic ailments – cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.  It is no surprise, since there are a whopping 10 teaspoons of sugar are in each 12 ounce can.  It has the sweet combination of lots of calories, loads of sugar and is completely devoid of nutritional value.  You are quickly packing on the calories with each sweet sip.   

So pat yourself on your back if you have dropped the high-sugar, high-calorie soft drinks for the diet alternative.  Zero calories and zero harm, correct?  Not so fast.  It would be somewhat refreshing as a nutrition professional to recommend something other than water, tea, coffee, and seltzer as no or low-calorie alternatives.  But I can’t and here is why.

Diet sodas are loaded with artificial sweeteners and that may mean several things for your health.  We do not yet know the long term consequences of consuming artificial sweeteners (like aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin) over long periods of time.  Animals studies have demonstrated that consuming high doses of these substances do not fare so well, but the doses often given in these types of studies are well beyond what we would drink in a day or week – even with a terrible diet soda habit.  But human research studies are beginning to emerge demonstrating associations between diet soda consumption and chronic disease risk.  A recent study in nearly 60,000 post-menopausal women found that women who consumed 2 or more diet drinks per day were 30% more likely to suffer from some sort of heart disease and 50% more likely to die from heart disease over the 10 year study period compared with women who consumed only a few per month or none.  While this is only an association and does not indicate that drinking soda causes heart disease (other factors linked with consumption such as unhealthy diet habits and smoking may also be driving this risk), it has researchers scrambling to better understand this association.

Research from Johns Hopkins using the National Health and Examination Survey (NHANES) indicates that 22% of obese and 19% of overweight adults report consuming diet beverages, while only 11% of healthy-weight adults report consuming them. One might infer from these numbers that overweight/obese individuals are more likely to consume diet beverages to help minimize calorie intake or conversely that there is something about diet sodas that may have caused overweight/obese consumers to pack on the extra pounds.  But what is interesting is that the overweight and obese adults who consume diet drinks consume more daily calories than overweight/obese adults who drink regular sugar-sweetened beverages.   

So does consumption of diet drinks lead to more eating?  It is exactly these types of aforementioned associational studies that have led researchers to try and understand if there is something about the artificial sweeteners that results in hunger and cravings for more sweet foods.  Some studies have demonstrated that the “sweetness” in diet sodas is actually confusing our brains.  A diet soda tastes sweet, but is not giving our brains the satisfaction that we have truly consumed something sweet.  What this suggests then is that we will then seek out additional sweet foods – which will increase our calorie load.  More calories in and more potential for excess weight gain. 

The science is not yet conclusive on diet drinks – but it is clear that they are not a panacea for weight loss and could even have the potential to do harm.  You know that you should be avoiding highly processed and packaged foods for your health and body weight control.  Common sense should also tell us that artificially sweetened drinks are also not chalk full of health benefits – natural whole foods are what we should be striving for and that includes beverages.  Steer clear, eat clean, and avoid the excess “sweet” in any form.

Much Ado About "D"

We’ve heard a lot about the “power of Vitamin D,” but what is vitamin D anyway and why all the hype? Simply put, vitamin D is an essential fat-soluble vitamin—“essential” because our bodies need it for maintenance and repair and “fat-soluble” because we store excess amounts of it in our fat tissue.

Up until a few years ago, vitamin D was best known for its role in bone health. Just a century ago, children would drink cod liver oil that was rich in vitamin D so they wouldn’t get rickets, a painful softening of the bones that often resulted in bow legs. Then in the 1930s, milk was fortified with vitamin D to combat this problem. Older adults often take vitamin D along with calcium in supplement form to prevent and treat the bone disease osteoporosis.

More recently, though, vitamin D has become a hot topic for its apparent protective effects against diabetes, heart disease and cancer, as well as its potential to enhance immune function. Recent studies have also indicated that if you’re overweight or obese, you are more likely to be vitamin D deficient. Now, vitamin D deficiency doesn’t cause people to be overweight. Quite the contrary: your fat tissue just likes to hold onto the vitamin D, making it unavailable when your body needs it.

Interestingly, our greatest source of vitamin D is not from our diets, but from the sun. Sun exposure for as little as 10 to 15 minutes a day provides about 80 to 100 percent of our daily vitamin D needs. In climates north of 42° latitude (like in Boston), though, we synthesize absolutely no vitamin D from sun exposure between the months of November and March. The angle of the sun is simply too low to convert the vitamin D precursor that is found in your skin to its active form. You could lie naked on the ski slopes in Vermont in January and you still wouldn’t synthesize any vitamin D. (We don’t recommend you try this, for obvious reasons.) To compound matters, these days we slather on the sunscreen and often stay inside way too much even when we live in warmer climates. Plus, as you get older, your skin becomes less efficient at synthesizing vitamin D, so even if you do get some sun exposure (say, with a midwinter trip to Florida or Los Angeles), you could still be low.

Not only is vitamin D sometimes tough to get from the sun in winter, but there aren’t many great food sources either. Fatty fish, fortified milk, cereals, and orange juice have some vitamin D, but not enough to meet the latest dietary recommendation of 600 IU/d per day (800 IU/d for those over 70).

All of this means that for most of us, particularly those of us who live at northern latitudes, our vitamin D levels start to decline in October and reach their lowest levels in March. That makes March the perfect time to get your vitamin D levels tested to see if you are deficient (a low level is considered less than 12 ng/mL of 25-hydroxy vitamin D or less than 20 ng/mL 25OHD—your doctor will know how to read these results). Many scientists actually recommend that we achieve a level greater than 30 ng/mL.

So, should you take a supplement? This is one of those rare cases where I would suggest considering it. First, ask your doctor to check your vitamin D levels—do this today if you think you might be. If you’re deficient, he or she will recommend a supplement. If you can’t get to the doctor right away, a safe daily dose would be 1,000 IU/d (you can find this at your local grocery store). Just don’t take more unless it’s under the guidance of a health care professional. Since we can still synthesize D in Oct, we really don’t start to see drops until Nov/Dec, 12 is considered true deficiency and 20 is considered inadequate – so if you simply want to say “low levels, stick with <20 ng/ml of 25-hydroxyvitamin D (the abbreviation is 25OHD)

Jen's Cleanse

Welcome to a NEW YOU, Start Fresh With a Cleanse!

If you want to see me grit my teeth, ask me about a cleanse — you know, a one-week kick-start to a whole-new-better-you simply by subsisting on a “proven” blend of herbs, juices, and whatnot. Even better, proclaim that you’re doing a cleanse — and that it’s worth every penny you paid to an online guru, your local personal trainer who’s “a nutrition expert,” or the celeb author with a picture of a puke-green shake on his or her book cover.

BEWARE. Because they’re hailed as a quick fix to rid your body of toxins (sounds great, right?), lose weight and cure just about every ailment imaginable, cleanses are all the rage.  As it turns out, they’re not a new phenomenon: the lemon juice/maple syrup/cayenne pepper cleanse, commonly referred to as the “Master Cleanse,” was popular in the 1940’s, long before our fast-food revolution and bloated midsections began to appear. Are cleanses new? No. Are they a big business?  Yes.  A cure-all?  Heck, no!

Let’s start with the toxins that cleanses are purported to rid from your body. WHICH TOXINS?  As a scientist, I want to know. And how come we don’t flush these toxins like we do other toxic substances in our bodies — like ammonia, for example, which is a by-product of protein metabolism? Ammonia is toxic to the brain in high concentrations, so the liver and kidneys do this amazing thing — they help clear the body of it, through our urine.

Cleanses also promise quick weight loss.  Well, yes: restricting your intake to a funky concoction of juice and spices, or only pulverized vegetables, for 10 days will lead to temporary weight loss.  It’s simple math — and simply unsustainable.  And it’s not nutritious.  By completely ignoring several food groups, you’ll be depriving your body of many essential nutrients. (Well, some cleanse adherents say, “take a supplement while you’re on this cleanse to ensure nutrient balance.” Huh? If you’re cleansing your body, why would you take a PILL?!)  You’ll be starving yourself, which results in your body SLOWING down its metabolism — which is the last thing you want to do if you’re trying to lose weight. When people come off a cleanse, which they always do, and resume a normal diet, which they almost always do, most gain back all the weight they lost — and then some. Finally, if you’re devoid of calories and low on energy during a cleanse, how do you exercise? 

In fact, exercise is a key part of reducing your body’s quotient of THE great toxins: excess sugar and fat, both of which raise your risk of excess inflammation and chronic — and life-threatening — diseases. Exercise boosts metabolism, burns fat and calories, and moderates your blood sugar levels. So you want to get rid of toxins? Great. Don’t put too much alcohol, caffeine, processed foods, or alternative sweeteners in your body in the first place. And then exercise — and let your liver and kidneys do their job, too. 

But if you must cleanse, try my “vegetable, fruit and exercise cleanse.” It includes skipping all processed and packaged food items, which are loaded with added sugar and bad fats (trans and saturated)…along with banning things like caffeine and alcohol and pastries and chips, which we could all use a little less of.  Load up on wholesome foods, including lean protein and some whole grains, with a major focus on WHOLE fruits and vegetables (don’t pulverize them!) — which are loaded with great nutrition; are “all natural”; and are packed with loads of fiber, which has a funny little way of cleaning you out.  And then exercise daily, at a moderate-to-vigorous level.  Try Jen’s cleanse.  It WORKS.

The Gluten-Free Craze

Gluten-free is all the rage these days: more and more restaurants are introducing gluten-free menus, supermarkets have entire aisles dedicated to gluten-free foods, and increasingly, we hear that in order to lose weight, we need to cut all gluten from our diets. Last year, the gluten-free market was a $10.5 billion industry and it’s only growing.

But what is gluten anyway? And why are so many Americans jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, which Americans eat an awful lot of in the form of bread and pasta. About one percent of the population suffers from celiac disease, an illness characterized by an absolute intolerance to gluten. In those people, the ingestion of gluten causes an immediate immune response that damages the intestinal lining, leading to gastrointestinal distress, malabsorption and even malnutrition. The only cure? A lifelong commitment to eliminating gluten from the diet.

Recently, though, many of us have picked up on the notion that even though we do not suffer from celiac disease per se, we may have some form of “gluten sensitivity,” whereby eating wheat products causes GI distress but no permanent damage to your intestinal lining (more akin to an allergy).  Interestingly enough, there is such a thing — research scientists estimate that up to 3 percent of Americans could be gluten-sensitive (while others promoting gluten-free diets like to speculate that these numbers are higher).

Unfortunately, there is no definitive diagnostic test to tell one way or the other, so many of us self-diagnose. We decide to eliminate all wheat products, many of which are not whole grain but instead are the refined, processed and packaged stuff — rolls, bread, processed cereals, pasta, cookies, crackers, the list goes on. And guess what? When we stop eating all this junk, we feel better. And then we become convinced that it’s the gluten that is responsible for all of our health woes.

Here’s my two cents. I am pretty convinced that a good portion of those who have gone gluten-free and who say they are markedly better feel good simply because they have stopped eating a lot of processed white foods. They are also likely to be eating less, having cut out a major food category, namely breads and pasta. Of course, sometimes those who go gluten-free simply substitute gluten-free bread and pasta for the regular version. That can backfire if the gluten-free products are full of sugar, which is no doubt worse for you than anything else.

At the end of the day, I applaud the labeling of gluten-free foods for those who have celiac disease or are truly gluten sensitive — it sure makes your life easier.  For the rest of us, though, our lives have once again become more nutritionally complicated. Here is yet another confusing message to the American public about what is and is not healthy.

Whole grains are loaded with fiber, as well as the B vitamins, selenium and magnesium so important to good health. Large epidemiological studies have demonstrated the health benefits of a diet that includes whole grains, including a reduced risk for Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. I eat whole grains, and I urge you to do the same, if you can. 

Jen on Supplements

As a nation we thrive on quick fixes, so it’s not surprising that more than half of all Americans take some type of dietary supplement — creating a staggering $30 BILLION industry.

And here’s the kicker: supplements are basically doing nothing to make us healthier. Supplement users do not live longer, or die of dreadful illnesses at a lesser rate, than non-supplement users with similar lifestyles. In fact, supplement use may be doing us harm.

The thousands of dietary supplements on the market — including multi-vitamins, individual mega-doses of vitamins and minerals, ayurvedic remedies, herbals, protein powders, etc. — will not keep you from getting wrinkles or cancer. And the most common supplement of them all, a daily multi-vitamin, is not an insurance policy.  While people who take a daily multi-vitamin may be healthier than those who don’t, the multi-vitamin is not the reason: it turns out that most multi-vitamin users already have a more well-balanced diet, and are more physically active, than those who don’t.  These healthy people don’t need extra vitamins and minerals; by taking them, they simply end up with what we call “expensive urine.”

What’s more, taking supplements cannot replace the naturally occurring combination of nutritious factors found in FOOD. In fact, if you rely too heavily on supplements, you miss out on a ton of nutrition.  Synthesized pills can never substitute for whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Food also has a multitude of other non-essential nutrients that offer health benefits such as flavonoids, carotenoids, FIBER, and many other substances that supplements just don’t contain — and that likely work to prevent chronic disease.  These nutrients come in foods in natural combinations, many of which we’re still discovering.  A pill simply can’t do that.  So, to take just one example, skip the fish oil; eat FISH instead.

That’s how supplements are not helping us. But how are they potentially harming us? Watch for a supplement’s claim to fame: this one increases energy, that one enhances performance. Lose weight! Reduce body fat! Relieve symptoms of fatigue and stress! And, of course, the holy grail: take a pill and you can eliminate signs of aging! Oh yes, these supplements are “all-natural.”  How, exactly, do we know that these supplements work? We don’t. There is no evidence that most supplements have any of the positive effects their marketers tout — and yet it’s perfectly legal for their marketers to make such pronouncements. Supplement manufacturers can say anything they want about their product, as long as they don’t claim to prevent a specific disease. 

Here’s the stark reality. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) treats dietary supplements under the general umbrella of “foods”, just like it would an apple —even though supplements clearly are not food. So, as “food,” supplements aren’t as tightly regulated as drugs and medications are, EVEN THOUGH many users treat supplements as a cure for an ailment — i.e., a drug. The FDA is not empowered to closely monitor a supplement’s contents unless there’s evidence that the supplement is dangerous — and even then, the FDA simply doesn’t have the sheer people-power to monitor all supplements on the market.  So what slips through the cracks? False labels (for instance, a bottle of vitamin D labeled as 1000 IU per pill might instead contain 10,000 IU per pill). And contamination —YES, CONTAMINATION — with substances such as lead, mercury, anabolic steroids, etc., leading to serious side-effects and sometimes even death.

Here’s what you should do. Focus on a healthy well-balanced diet and only take a supplement if you have a diagnosed clinical deficiency. And if you must take a supplement , make sure that you buy it from a reputable manufacturer — and try to buy only supplements bearing the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) seal, which indicates random off-the-shelf testing has been conducted to insure integrity, purity, and safe manufacturing. Just don’t be surprised if you don’t find this seal often; as the New York Times recently reported, fewer than 1 percent of the 55,000 supplements on the market bear this label.  So buyer beware.  And remember that even with a seal, no pill is a magic bullet.