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    Archive for 2007

    You Ask, I Answer: Acai

    What do you know about the acai palm/fruit?

    My light research suggests it is very healthy (i.e.: a lot of mono-unsaturated fats).

    Is it just as healthy as something like walnuts or an avacodo or would you regard the acai as being uniquely healthy?

    — Guy Betterbid
    New York, NY

    The acaí (pronounced ah-SIGH-ee) fruit — native to Brazil, hailed by many as a “superfood”, and known within trendy circles as “the new pomegranate” — is rich in vitamins and minerals and a great source of fiber.

    It also offers a fair amount of monounsaturated fatty acids (mainly in the form of oleic acid) — the healthy fats found predominantly in olive oil, walnuts, and avocados.

    As great as the nutritional profile of acai berries is, remember that all fruits are healthy. There is no fruit equivalent to a bag of Oreos.

    While the acai beats out many of its counterparts in terms of antioxidants levels (which should not be the end-all, be-all criteria for selecting any food), other fruits offer more of certain vitamins and minerals.

    For instance, an orange contains more Vitamin C than an acai berry.

    Is acai nutritious? Absolutely.

    Is it a miracle food, as so many acai suppliers want you to believe? No.

    It is important to keep supposed “miracle foods” like acai berries in the appropriate context. After all, drinking acai juice while snacking on chips defeats the purpose.

    I find that it is better to focus on general eating patterns rather than getting hung up on one specific food.


    Weekend Fun/Say What?: Please Tell Me No One Bought This

    No, not a Photoshop joke courtesy of The Onion.

    Japan’s Sapporo beverage company released this beverage in 2004!


    You Ask, I Answer: Omega-3 Fats

    Why is fish always credited as a good source of Omega 3 fats when walnuts and flaxseed have plenty also?

    — Diane Grant
    Tucson, AZ

    Although we often refer to “Omega 3 fats” as one general category, there are three different types of Omega-3 fatty acids: Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA), EicosoPentaenoic Acid (EPA), and DocosaHexaenoic Acid (DHA).

    ALA is found exclusively in vegetable sources, including walnuts and flaxseeds.

    You might have heard some people talk about the Omega-3’s in dark, leafy green vegetables.

    However, they are so low in fat to begin with that, although nutritious in many ways, I don’t consider them to be a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids.

    EPA and DHA are found in large quantities in cold water fish. Grass-fed beef will contain a little, as well.

    One concern with getting Omega-3’s solely from vegetable sources is that some people are unable to convert ALA to EPA and DHA.

    Even if you are able to convert ALA to EPA and DHA, 10 grams of ALA are needed to make 600 milligrams of EPA and 400 of DHA.

    Considering that current recommendations call for 1 gram of EPA and another of DHA, that’s a lot of ALA to consume — and convert!

    And while ALA is indeed good for us, there is, as always, too much of a good thing. Several recent studies have linked very high intakes of ALA among men with a higher risk of prostate cancer.

    It’s also important to realize that as good for us as Omega 3 fats are, they do not work alone. Vitamin C, zinc, and magnesium are involved in the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA.

    If you are not consuming enough of those nutrients, your conversion will happen at an even slower rate.

    Walnuts and flaxseed are nutritious and have their share of health benefits. However, for optimal Omega-3 fat consumption, it is highly recommended to include sources of EPA and DHA in your diet.


    You Ask, I Answer: Raw Chicken Food Labels

    When you buy a package of uncooked chicken breasts, it has the calorie amount for four ounces of chicken. Is this cooked or uncooked chicken?

    — Suzanna (via the blog)

    The nutrition information listed on raw chicken breasts is for the uncooked product.

    This is where consumers have to do some extra math.

    Even though you are buying a four ounce chicken breast, you are eating less — approximately two and a half or three ounces — due to water lost during the cooking process.

    This isn’t so much the United States Department of Agriculture being misleading as much as it is them being unable to guess how people will be cooking their raw chicken.

    Not only does the final weight of a chicken breast vary on cooking times and methods, so does the caloric content.

    Grilling does not add extra calories, but sauteeing chicken breast in a tablespoon of olive oil adds an additional 120.


    In The News: Small Bites (!)

    Many thanks to Terri Coles of Reuters.com for featuring this blog in a great article on the USDA findings regarding whole grain consumption.

    To any new readers who found this blog through the Reuters.com article — welcome to Small Bites!


    Whole Grains Even An Amateur Will Love

    Current statistics show that consumers in the United States eat 40 percent of their whole grains at the breakfast table.

    A large majority of this figure can be attributed to popular cereals like regular Cheerios, Total, and Fiber One.

    Although they offer their share of fiber (and millions of people like to start their day off with them), these cereals are often characterized as too bland by fiber-free eaters persuaded to switch to healthier breakfast foods.

    Consequently, these people often revert to sugary, “made with whole grain” varieties that are basically sugar flakes with a pinch of whole wheat flour thrown in to justify a “Whole Grains!” boast on the front of the box.

    I always think it’s good to let you know of smaller companies who are putting out delicious and nutritious products, so while we are in the cereal realm, I thought I would let you know about Barbara’s Bakery.

    Their Shredded Line of cereals is composed of tasty — and ultra crunchy, even after several minutes in milk — whole grain cereals.

    A 1 1/4 cup of Shredded Oats, for example, contains five grams of fiber, 230 milligrams of potassium, six grams of protein, and 2.5 grams of fat.

    Thank the nutrition deities for a realistic serving size! Too many cereal brands try to pass off half a cup as a serving.

    Tomorrow morning, measure out half a cup of cereal. Then laugh, as you realize that the average person eats at least an entire cup or breakfast.

    Since the first two ingredients are whole grains — whole oat flour and whole wheat flour — one serving of Shredded Oats covers a whooping ninety percent of the daily recommended intake of whole grains.

    I’m actually not big on packaged cereals, but, for the past several months, boxes of Shredded Oats have taken permanent residence in my cupboards.


    Baked, Not Faked

    I have never been a fan of baked potato chips.

    Baked Lay’s make my palate think I am munching on salty cardboard, and other varieties (Baked Doritos, Baked Cheetos) taste just as artificial as the conventional versions.

    If you are a “sandwich and chip” luncher, or someone who enjoys a crunchy, salty treat once in a while, I am happy to report that the folks at Kettle have come up with a Small Bites approved solution — Kettle Bakes Potato Chips.

    Unlike synthetic low-fat/low-calorie potato chips made from dehydrated potato flakes and break apart (rather than crunch) in your mouth, these chips are made from real potatoes.

    No flakes, no dehydrated shenanigans — actual potatoes (you can even see the skins)!

    Each 0.8 ounce bag clocks in at a mere 100 calories and contains 65% less fat than the same amount of regular Kettle chips.

    The best part? The texture is like that of a real kettle potato chip!

    While I don’t advocate tracking down a bag of potato chips every time you are in the mood for a salty snack, there is one advantage to having them over other kinds of chips. One 0.8 ounce bag of Kettle baked chips contains 390 milligrams of potassium — 12% of the recommended daily intake!

    Let me be clear. I am not recommending potato chips as a good source of potassium.

    However, if you have a hankering for chips, be smart and reach for an individual sized bag of Kettle Bakes!

    Tasty, calorie controlled, made solely with real potatoes, low-fat and, as an added bonus, throw some much-needed potassium your way.


    You Ask, I Answer: Western Alternative Bagel

    [What do you think of] the Western Alternative Bagel?

    — Anonymous (via the blog)

    To those of you who have never heard of it, the Western alternative bagel is developed by California-based chain Western Bagel.

    Each two-ounce bagel clocks in at 110 calories and contais 0 grams of fat, 0 grams of sugar, 7 grams of fiber, and 6 grams of protein.

    Here’s the mystery, though. Look at the ingredient list: Enriched unbleached flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, wheat gluten, corn starch, inulin, oat fiber. May contain 2% or less of: calcium sulfate, enzymes, l-cysteine, salt, yeast, calcium propionate and sorbic acid (preservatives), artificial flavor, sucralose.

    Whole wheat flour is nowhere to be found.

    Sure, oat fiber is present, but towards the end. Certainly not in a sufficient quantity to result in seven grams of fiber.

    So…how do they do it?

    Allow me to introduce you to inulin.

    Also known as chicory root, it is a natural fiber (and prebiotic!) found in asparagus, onions, bananas, and other fruits and vegetables.

    Some of you may have heard the term ‘prebiotic’ before but are not sure what it means.

    In essence, when we consume inulin, the bacteria in our digestive system digests it and forms fructooligosaccharides, which in turn increase the number of beneficial bacteria in our colon.

    The higher our beneficial bacteria count, the healthier our intestinal tract.

    Food manufacturers love inulin, since it can replaces fat, whole wheat flour, and sugar while still giving baked goods a soft texture and and pleasant mouthfeel.

    From a health standpoint, it contains the same benefits as other fibers — longer-lasting satiety, regularity, and increased stool bulk.

    Additionally, it does not raise blood-glucose levels, so it is deemed safe for diabetics.

    In The Netherlands, inulin has been given an official stamp of approval. Products containing this fiber can legally be advertised as “promoting well-balanced intestinal [intestinal] flora composition.”

    It gets better! A 2006 Brazilian study published in renowned journal Nutrition Research found that inulin helps increase calcium and magnesium absorption.

    Any drawbacks? Two I can think of.

    First, consuming large amounts of inulin (especially if you are not accustomed to it) can result in flatulence and mild stomach pains.

    Additionally, although inulin has its nutritional advantages, it is missing most of the goodness found in whole grains.

    A bagel made with refined grains and inulin is definitely a better option than a fiberless one made solely with white flour.

    However, whole grains are more than just fiber. They are an exclusive mix of phytonutrients, plant sterols, and antioxidants with their own health-boosting properties.

    I don’t think of inulin (while helpful and beneficial in its own right) as a true substitute for a 100% whole grain product.


    Review: Super Skinny Me

    Super Skinny Me, BBC America’s dieting documentary, follows Kate and Louise, two female British journalists looking to get down from a Size 10 to a Size 00 in 5 weeks.

    WHAT I LIKED: Super Skinny Me goes beyond the standard “I’m eating so little that even routine chores wear me out and I feel lethargic all day” narrative to spotlight the emotional repercussions of extreme dieting.

    Kate, for example, starts off the experiment highly motivated and initially even has fun with it.

    After three weeks of deprivation, she “falls off the wagon” and eats more calories than her ultra strict regimen permits (800 calories, approximately 40% of her needs).

    Afraid of putting weight back on, Kate becomes anxious, depressed, and even reverts to bingeing and purging. The doctor supervising the experiment mandates that she stop the extreme dieting halfway through week four.

    Kate later reveals that the four weeks of extreme dieting — in which she dropped 17 lbs. — triggered painful memories of weight struggles as an adolescent.

    It was also interesting to learn some of the various extreme diets — the watercress soup diet (800 calories a day, three bowls of watercress soup a day and nothing else), the protein shake diet (1,000 calories, 2 protein shakes + one protein-heavy meal a day), and the popular “cleanse” lemonade diet (drinking nothing but a heinous concoction of pure lemon juice, cayenne pepper, maple syrup and water three times a day).

    I am also glad Super Skinny Me showed the sheer stupidity of many “diet tricks”. At one point, Louise tries an exercise routine loved by “a certain pop star”.

    It involves wrapping yourself in Seran Wrap and running on a treadmill (in a sauna!) for 30 minutes.

    She only lasts 15 minutes — and manages to lose half an inch off her waist and hips! Of course, one glass of water brings that half inch right back because the only thing you lose by doing that (apart from your time and self-respect) is water weight.

    WHAT I WOULD HAVE LIKED TO SEE: Although we see a few effects of the extreme diets on Kate and Louise’s social lives (Louise goes out to dinner with friends and brings her watercress soup in a plastic bowl, which she asks the waiter to heat up for her), I was left wondering how this assignment affected Kate and Louise’s work performance.

    WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN LEFT OUT: Louise’s interview with an anorexic teenager seemed choppy and slightly out of place. The subject of the interview wasn’t very likeable — she mainly complained about the fact that people only wanted her to gain weight because she wasn’t famous (alluding to the fact that if she was an A-list actress, her weight would be complimented, rather than criticized).

    In fact, there was no mention of her struggling with body image issues, engaging in dangerous eating patterns, or even some background on how and why she developed her condition.

    IN CONCLUSION: While Super Skinny Me did not delve into the socio-political, business, or cultural aspects of dieting, it did a wonderful job of showing the toll these insane regimens have on people’s bodies and psyche.

    I especially liked the last segment, in which Kate and Louise weigh in two weeks after ending their extremely restrictive eating plans.

    Not surprisigly, they gained the weight back. This is precisely why crash diets are a waste of time; not only do they involve unnecessary deprivation, they also set you up for failure.

    Losing weight is much more manageable — and pleasurable — when done with a balanced, nutritious meal plan and realistic timelines.


    Numbers Game: Answer

    It’s snack time! Which of the following offers the most fiber?

    a) One 1.5 ounce individual box of raisins (120 calories)
    One ounce (6 individual)Triscuit-like whole-grain crackers (120 calories)
    c) Four cups air-popped popcorn (124 calories)
    d) 17 raw almonds (118 calories)
    e) One 1 oz. bag of soy crisps (110 calories)

    Air-popped popcorn leads the pack with 4.6 grams of fiber.

    Here is how the other nevertheless healthy snacks rank:

    6 Triscuits: 3 grams
    17 raw almonds: 2.4 grams

    1 oz. soy crisps: 2 grams

    1.5 oz box of raisins: 1.5 grams

    Many people looking to add fiber to their diets often forget one of the most popular whole grains — popcorn!

    Yes, 20 cups doused in butter (what you get at a movie theater) are equal to two Big Macs, but, when air popped, it is a great low-calorie, high-fiber crunchy treat.


    You Ask, I Answer: Olestra

    This situation is a little awkward but: I ate the Lay’s light chips (the ones cooked with olestra) and [they] produced some rather unfortunate side effects the next morning, as you can imagine.

    I checked but there was no warning on the packaging. How come they don’t warn about the side effects of Olestra?

    — Bubbles (via the blog)

    Welcome to nutrition politics! I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

    Let’s begin with some general information.

    Olestra — a calorie-free fat-substitute made by linking fatty acid chains to sucrose molecules — was developed in 1996 by multinational consumer goods giant Proctor & Gamble.

    I am sure many of you remember the popularity of “WOW!” chips in the late 90s. Those were fat-free thanks to the inclusion of Olestra.

    At the time, two things stood out to people who read the nutrition label and ingredient list. First, vitamins A, D, E, and K were added into the product.

    A “healthier” potato chip? No. Since Olestra inhibits the absorption of these vitamins, it was decided to fortify such fat-free products with them.

    However, the statement following the ingredient list caught most people’s attention: “Olestra may cause abdominal cramping and loose stools.” Yum!

    Why is this? Olestra travels through our bodies completely undigested. In turn, even not-so-large quantities result in less than pleasurable side effects.

    Alas, time went on and the Food & Drug Administration received over 20,000 formal complaints from consumers. The overwhelming majority revolved around the consumption of Wow! chips and painful — sometimes painfully embarrassing — side effects.

    This made Olestra the food additive with the most complaints in the history of the FDA.

    Interestingly enough, Wow! chips were soon replaced by “light” varieties of popular snacks. The perfect marketing trick, if you ask me — offer a product with a tarnished reputation under a different name.

    Remember, this is Proctor & Gamble we are talking about here. A lot of money — and corporate interest — is at stake.

    I should also mention that Proctor & Gamble is known for its overly generous contributions to the Republican Party. This nugget of information will come in handy in a about two seconds.

    Fast-forward to October of 2003 when, magically, during a Republican presidency, the FDA announced that products containing Olestra no longer need to list warnings on their packages.

    Their reasoning? The reported gastrointestinal side effects were “mild and rare.”

    In fact, one of their main arguments was that abdominal cramps and diarrhea are common, and Olestra was just getting a bad reputation.

    I don’t think Olestra is worth all the trouble. If you are looking for a lower fat conventional potato chip, try Baked chips (I personally think Baked Lay’s taste like salted cardboard, but the new Kettle Baked Chips are tasty), which contain 85% less fat than their regular relatives and absolutely no Olestra.


    You "Ask", I Answer: Overall Nutritional Quality Index

    As a consumer I can see immediate applications for this [new scoring system].

    It would help me tremendously to see an easy to read label that ranks foods faster than I can read the labels.

    See a “1” and you can avoid those foods, especially the sneaky ones (such as cereal, which can be billed entirely as healthy even though some have so much sugar).

    It won’t make me skip label reading entirely, but they would help to make faster decisions.

    The most important application, however, is to have a VISUAL reminder of what you are about to purchase- something that not everyone thinks of when buying.

    If you find yourself always snacking on trailmix, for example, because it’s “healthy” and all of a sudden it gets slapped with a “2” or a “3”- well, it might just make you think twice about getting that again, won’t it?

    — AMR
    (via the blog)

    I concur with you that the ONQI has the potential to make healthy shopping easier — and faster — for some people.

    Let’s, however, take your trail mix example further, as it is a perfect example of a controversial item.

    Yes, trail mix is calorically dense due to the presence of nuts. And, on a food label, its sugar content would rival that of a chocolate bar.

    However, we are talking about an item that offers heart-healthy fats, naturally-occurring sugars, protein, fiber, vitamin E, and magnesium.

    Hence, those calories values differ greatly from similar ones found in a Crunch bar (which contains a generous share of saturated fat and added sugars).

    Although one of my favorite mantras is “sugar is sugar is sugar” (meaning that whether in a piece of fruit or made in a lab, heavily processed, or made from organic cane juice crystals, it adds up to 4 calories per gram), the difference with naturally-occurring sugars (found in fruits, vegetables, and dairy) is that they are present in foods that offer nutrients (vitamins, minerals, and in many cases, fiber).

    It would be helpful if foods had brief explanations as to why they received their respective scores (i.e.: “50% of the daily saturated fat limit” or “8 teaspoons of added sugar per serving.”)

    I would hate for people to be dissuaded from learning the skill of reading a food label or an ingredient list simply because this ranking would do that for them.

    The other issue with these rankings is that they can sometimes split hairs unnecessarily. For instance, do we really need to start debating whether an orange is “healthier” than an apple?

    We’ll see how the public reacts once it is implemented.


    In The News: New Nutrition Labels

    Get ready for the Overall Nutritional Quality Index, coming to some supermarkets near you in 2008!

    This new labeling system, developed by a panel of leading nutritionists (including Yale’s Dr. David Katz, who I interviewed for this blog) scores foods from 1 to 100 (1 being absolute junk, 100 being perfection) based on several different factors.

    I applaud the motives behind this initiative (helping consumers quickly identify healthy foods), but a few questions come to mind.

    First — does this address the issue at hand?

    Most people know the basics — that fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are healthy.

    Similarly, I don’t think anyone considers Doritos, Coke, Haagen Dazs, and Oreos to be staples of a nutritious diet. Whether they choose to ignore that and snack on Ruffles and Pepsi every day because “they taste good” is a separate topic.

    I don’t think too many people will be surprised to learn that raisins score higher than M&M’s, or that Trix and Grapenuts are several numbers apart.

    Are consumers not buying healthy foods due to a lack of knowledge on their behalf, or the vastly different marketing budgets of food companies? After all, Nabisco certainly has more money to throw around for a cookie advertising campaign than the Avocado Board.

    Additionally, many healthy snack options are developed by smaller companies who are more concerned with getting their products on store shelves than on an American Idol commercial break.

    Many people who would love the taste of a nutritious product like Lara bars have no idea they exist. No wonder — when was the last time you saw a magazine or television ad for one?

    My main hope is that this system stays far away from the glycemic index. After all, if you swear by that ranking, ice cream is a better choice than a potato!

    I’m also curious to know how the issue of vitamins and minerals will be dealt with. Will a processed food like a Luna Bar injected with synthetic vitamins and minerals score just as high as an orange or apple (which, despite lacking added sugar or sodium, offer a lower variety of nutrients?)

    I’m looking forward to seeing how ONQI resonates with the public. If anything, I love the discourse it will bring up, and I sincerely appreciate the desire to make shopping for healthy foods that much easier.


    You Ask, I Answer: White Whole Wheat Breads

    I personally am kind of sketched out by [“white with the same goodness of whole wheat” products] because if they’re not actually whole wheat they’ve got to be missing something somewhere, right?

    — Vincci (via the blog)

    I assume you are referring to whole wheat breads that are white in color.

    If so, I’m happy to report that they are just as healthy and nutritious as regular whole wheat breads.

    The only difference between them is that while standard whole-wheat bread is composed of red wheat, white whole wheat breads are made using albino wheat.

    Remember — determining a bread’s whole grain content by its color is often inaccurate.

    Many brown breads are made of refined white flour and have molasses thrown in for color. And, in the case of white whole wheat products, their color does not represent a fiberless bread.

    You’ll always be sure of what you are getting by reading the label.

    If “whole wheat flour” is not the first ingredient, you are not getting a whole grain bread.

    In fact, if the second ingredient is “unbleached wheat flour,” you are not getting as many whole grains as you could. The ideal whole wheat bread should have one kind of flour — whole wheat.

    If your question is in reference to breads “made with whole grains” (or those labeled “multigrain”), then you have every reason to be suspicious, since they are not whole grain breads.


    In The News: Grain of Truth

    I was just browsing through Marion Nestle’s wonderful blog and came across some disheartening news.

    It appears whole grain consumption is far below what it should be.

    This surprises me. With so many more convenient whole grain options out there (i.e.: whole wheat pastas, whole grain English muffins, whole grain waffles, etc.) , I was under the impression more people had integrated them into their diets.

    I personally love whole grains for their taste alone. I wonder if people are shunning them out of dislike, unfamiliarity (“quinoa? no clue what that is. I’ll just buy white rice.”), or another reason I’m failing to see.

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