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Archive for the ‘omega-3 fatty acids’ Category

Q&A Roundup #4

Time to answer some questions I’ve received via Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail over the past few weeks.

Enjoy — and keep the queries coming!

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The Handy Dandy Cooking Oil Comparison Chart

A few weeks ago, Andrew Wilder of the Eating Rules blog asked me if I wanted to help build a cooking oil comparison chart that would help people make sense of the wide array of choices. The topic of cooking oils is one I am very passionate about, so I gladly jumped at the chance.

The chart — a real visual treat! — can be downloaded here, but I encourage you to read this blog post first, as it explains the science behind the results (and contains some very important FYIs).

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Why The Media Needs a Vegan 101 Course… Stat!

With vegan eating increasingly becoming more mainstream, I thought it was time to compile a list of recent articles to see how the media frames and discusses the issue. Despite some improvements, there is certainly room for more.

Below, what the media continues to get wrong — and how it can avoid making the same mistakes.

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Guest Post: For ADHD & Dyslexia, Good Nutrition Is Best Medicine

Although millions of Americans are increasingly becoming aware of nutrition’s vital role in cardiovascular health, blood pressure regulation, and blood sugar control, that same paradigm is nowhere near as widespread when it comes to learning and comprehension disabilities.

For this guest post, I asked Judy Converse, an established expert on the subject matter, to provide an overview of how proper — and improper! — nutrition can affect children with ADD, dyslexia, and other conditions she commonly works with in her private practice.

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8 Cooking Oil Facts Everyone Must Know

Over the past few weeks, I have received an increasing number of questions about cooking oils.  Given the apparent confusion and misinformation out there, I’ve constructed this list of facts, FYIs, and tidbits I consider absolutely crucial.

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You Ask, I Answer: How Many Grams of Fish Oils A Day?

andrew-lessman-essential-omega-3-no-fishy-taste-mint-360-capsules~660045Saw this tweet from you the other day: “Ideal Omega 3 supplementation: 3 g total/day; DHA:EPA ratio of 2:3. Don’t bother with supplements that offer ALA.”

My basic approach has been to consume at least 1,000mg (or 1 gram) per day; that seems to be the standard recommendation. I’m wondering if the 3 gram recommendation is meant for the greater population or just those with very high cholesterol or other conditions.

– Guy Betterbid
New York, NY

One gram a day is not bad.  Here is what I base my “3 grams per day” recommendation on:

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Numbers Game: Answer

champion_nutsThe vast majority of large-scale, long-term studies on nut consumption conclude that an individual who consumes one ounce of nuts five times a week has, on average, a 35 percent lower rate of developing coronary heart disease than someone who consumes less than an ounce per week.

This can be attributed to a few factors:

  • All nuts contain a few grams of fiber
  • Some nuts (i.e.: walnuts) are high in omega-3 fatty acids, while others are good sources of heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids (i.e: hazelnuts, pecans, peanuts, almonds)
  • Nuts are a good source of vitamin E
  • Nuts are commonly consumed as a snack, often in place of nutritionally empty foods (i.e.: pretzels, rice crackers, cookies, etc.)

There is absolutely no reason to avoid nuts (or nut butters) or consider them “occasional treats”.

Plus, keep in mind that a serving of nuts is larger than you may think.  Consider these examples:

  • 23 almonds
  • 33 peanuts
  • 49 pistachios
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You Ask, I Answer: Omega 7

product502Do you have any insight on Omega 7?  Someone told me it was good.

– Marie-Rose Nduku
New York, NY

Before we get to the actual answer, I think it is worth reminding everyone that only two omega fatty acids — omega 3 and omega 6 — are essential.  In the world of nutrition, an “essential nutrient” is one we must obtain from food since our bodies are unable to manufacture it.  This is why cholesterol is not an essential nutrient.  Our bodies produce it on a daily basis, so one can be perfectly healthy without ever consuming a single milligram of cholesterol.

Omega-7 is not an essential fatty acid, no matter how crucial manufacturers of omega-7 supplements make it seem.  Let’s learn more about it, though.

There are two types of omega-7 fatty acids: palmitoleic acid and vaccenic acid.

Palmitoleic acid is a monounsaturated fatty acid manufactured by our bodies from other fatty acids in the diet, but is also found in decent amounts in fish and macadamia nut oil.  Though research on it is very limited, we do know that it raises the body’s levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.  This is quite an anomaly, since most monounsaturated fatty acids raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol.

And so we come to the problem of isolating nutrients, rather than considering them within their respective food matrix.  Unfortunately, the mainstream media loves to isolate nutrients and attempt to incite unnecessary hysteria.  The fact that palmitoleic acid raises LDL levels does not mean fish and macadamia nut oil are now “unhealthy”.

Foods are a combination of fatty acids.  In the example of fish, palmitoleic acid makes up a small amount of the total fatty acid percentage.  Even in the case of macadamia nut oil, palmitoleic acid only makes up about twenty percent of its fatty acid profile (almost two-thirds of it are comprised of heart-healthy oleic acid).

Vaccenic acid — the other omega-7 — is a healthful naturally-occurring trans fat found in full-fat dairy products (and, to a smaller extent, in reduced-fat products).  I know, I know; all this time you have heard trans fats be vilified.  However, the trans fats nutritionists declared Public Enemy #1 were man-made, artificial trans fats.  Natural trans fats (like vaccenic acid and conjugated linoleic acid) are a whole other story.

Vaccenic acid is an isomer of heart-healthy oleic acid (“isomer” is science-speak for “not identical, but very very similar to”).  Research on vaccenic acid has also been rather scant, but it appears that it is converted into conjugated linoleic acid by the body, thereby providing some cardiovascular-protective benefits.

So, what are our takeaways?

  • The only fatty acids we must get from food are omega 3 and omega 6 (though, as regular Small Bites readers know, omega-6 consumption in the US is too high).
  • When examining a food’s fat content, it is important to consider the entire fatty acid profile.
  • There is no reason to shy away from full-fat or reduced-fat products.  The fat-free phenomenon of the 1990s caused more harm than good.  It led to an increase in added sugar intake (sugar replaced fat in processed low-fat and fat-free convenience foods) and reduced our intake of healthful compounds found in foods that naturally contain them.  For this reason, I find that two-percent dairy products are a better choice than fat-free ones.  Even in the case of your morning latte, I see absolutely nothing wrong with getting it with whole milk.
  • What if you don’t consume dairy products?  No biggie.  Vaccenic acid is simply one of many fatty acids that provide heart-healthy benefits.  As long as most of your fats come from the right foods (avocados, olives, walnuts, coconut, flax, fish, sea vegetables, etc.) you have no reason to be concerned.
  • As for the “age defying skin complex” statement on the accompanying supplement image’s bottle: omega-7 has been found to be effective as a topical solution for certain skin conditions.  The specific omega-7 associated with skin conditions is palmitoleic acid — the one our bodies manufacture from other fatty acids!  There is no need to spend money on a supplement.
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You Ask, I Answer: Omega 3 Insufficiency

toasted-nori-sheets-withbamboo-mat-largeI have to thank you for explaining the differences between omega-3 fatty acids so clearly. Now, when I read about ALA, DHA, and EPA in books and magazines, I know what is being discussed!

I still have one nagging question.  How do you know if you have an omega-3 deficiency?

I know that some vitamin deficiencies cause hair loss and fatigue.  So, are there any warning signs that you need more omega 3 fatty acids in your diet?

Also, what happens if someone gets enough of one type of omega-3 fatty acid (like DHA) but another (like ALA)?

– Brittany Harwitz
(Location Withheld)

Mild fatty acid deficiencies usually do not manifest as physical symptoms.

Moderate deficiencies are a little easier to spot.  Tell-tale signs include dry and scaly skin, liver complications, and, in young children, stunted growth.

Complete — or “true” — deficiencies are very rare and only seen in instances of extremely restrictive diets.

The main concern from insufficient omega-3 fatty acid intake is that, most likely, it means you are consuming a higher amount of omega-6 fatty acids.  For information on why this is problematic, please read this post.

As far as what happens if someone consumed very high amounts of one type of omega-3 and not enough of another (to learn about the three varieties of omega-3 fatty acids, please read this post), keep in mind that while they share many properties, each of the fatty acids also provides different health benefits:

  • ALA (found in flaxseeds, walnuts, and tempeh) helps lower inflammation as well as coronary heart disease risk
  • DHA (found in some fatty fish and microalgae) has been linked to reduced rates of coronary heart disease and inflammation, improved memory function, lowered triglycerides, and reduced risk of hypertension
  • EPA (also found in some fatty fish and sea vegetables) helps reduce coronary heart disease risk and inflammation, improves blood flow, and reduces blood platelet aggregation (and, hence, atherosclerosis risk)

Although ALA can be converted to DHA and EPA, some complications can arise.  This is why diets that meet DHA and EPA needs but not ALA needs are more protective than those which meet ALA needs sufficiently, but fall short with DHA and EPA.

Whenever possible, try to get your omega-3 fatty acids from food, rather than supplements.  These foods also contain vitamins, minerals, and/or phytonutrients that work synergistically and enable the omega 3s to work more efficiently.  This is not to say omega-3 supplements are a waste of money — they are not.

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Intern On A Mission!

190154-1Over the past few months, University of Nebraska Lincoln freshman Laura Smith has been of tremendous help to me as the first-ever Small Bites intern.

A few weeks ago, I asked her to visit one or two vitamin stores in her city, assume the role of a regular customer, and ask sales representatives at these stores what they would recommend for her now that “she is under doctor’s orders” to eat more fiber and improve her cholesterol levels (FYI: she isn’t really, I just concocted that).

Here is what Laura was told at a store called Complete Nutrition (in her words):

I was told to take a multivitamin, as this will help improve nutrients and my cholesterol level.  I was also told to take Tone, a product that “attacks stubborn fat by shrinking fat cells while maintaining existing lean muscle”.  According to the salesperson, Tone has been clinically tested to support fat loss while maintaining normal cholesterol levels and promoting healthy heart functions. The key ingredients are CLA, Omega 3 fatty acids, and GLA.  I was also told to make sure to take protein.

Sigh.  Wow.  Deep sigh.  Okay.

If someone were to ask my recommendations to follow these “doctor’s orders”, I would say:

  • Increase soluble fiber intake by consuming oatmeal/oat-based cereals/oat bran, beans (especially kidney beans), nuts, psyllium husks (adding one tablespoon to a smoothie), fruits, and vegetables.
  • Lower intake of full-fat dairy and red meat
  • Prioritize foods with healthier fats (ie: add 1 Tablespoon ground flax to cereal, soup, or smoothie; replace cheese in sandwich with avocado, etc.)

Let’s analyze Complete Nutrition’s advice:

  1. “Take a multivitamin”: Completely irrelevant within the scope of cholesterol management.
  2. “Take Tone”: I love the notion of products attacking “stubborn fat”, as if there were some type of special fat that simply did not respond to food.  While the presence of omega-3s in this product is helpful, this customer would be better off eating food that offers omega-3 fatty acids and fiber simultaneously (i.e.: walnuts, ground flax).  They would save money, too!
  3. “Make sure you get protein”.  Also irrelevant from a cholesterol management standpoint.  As I have said many times on Small Bites, no one in the United States needs to worry about not consuming enough protein.  The average adult — without even trying — consumes approximately two and a half times their daily requirement.

Here is what Laura was told at GNC:

They told me to take fish oil, either a triple strength variety once a day, or a normal strength three times a day. They also told me to take a fiber supplement, either in a chewable or pill form.

While not ideal (my rule is “food first, then supplements”) this at least focuses on the right nutrients — healthier fats and fiber.  I understand, though, that GNC has products to sell and can’t be expected to suggest skipping their products and heading to the grocery store instead.

And, truth be told, I often recommend omega-3 supplementation to people who do not consume sufficient amounts of fish or sea vegetables each week to cover their needs.  In my book, omega-3 and vitamin D supplementation are two things almost everyone should be doing.

It’s more the fiber supplement advice that I find comical.  Most fiber supplements add 4 to 6 grams of fiber to your day, the same amount you can get from an apple or a medium banana or a half cup of lentils.

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The Omega-6 Problem

Many food products proudly advertise their omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid content.

I partially understand why.  Unlike other fats (like omega-9 fatty acids), we must get these two polyunsaturated ones from our diets.  That is precisely why they are known as essential fatty acids.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, our present omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is completely off-balance, largely in part to highly processed diets that contain significant amounts of plant oils high in omega-6 fatty acids.  Since soy is a subsidized crop, soybean oil is an inexpensive by-product commonly used in low-nutrition, low-cost snack foods.  Corn and cottonseed oils are also very high in omega-6, while offering negligible amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.

While saturated and trans fats are constantly mentioned in the realm of degenerative diseases (especially cardiovascular ones), dietary advice should also recommend limiting omega-6 fatty acids.

While I do not think saturated fats are absolutely harmless, I certainly do not consider all of them (remember, there are many different saturated fats) to be horrible fats we must avoid like the plague.

What is most interesting, though, is a simple look at consumption patterns over the past forty years.

Among 18 – 44 year olds in the United States, saturated fat consumption clocked in at 30 grams per day in 1970, and 27.8 grams per day in 2005.

Omega-6 fatty acid intake, however, was at 9 grams per day in 1970, and almost doubled to 17 grams by 2005.

High intakes of omega-6 fatty acids have been linked to cellular inflammation — one of the main factors behind a substantial number of degenerative diseases.

This is why I think everyone should prioritize omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats, then consider healthier saturated fats (like coconut and cacao), and leave omega-6 fatty acids and less healthy saturated fats (like that in cheese, pork, and chicken skin) last.

Although omega-6 fatty acids are essential, they are so prevalent in so many foods that you would have to try extremely hard (and eat a significantly and dangerously limited diet) to not meet your daily requirement.

I want to finish by making sure the main points of this post are understood:

  • Omega-6 fatty acids are NOT intrinsically unhealthy.  We need to consume a certain amount every day for optimal health.
  • Very healthy foods are good sources of omega-6 fatty acids.  I am not advocating total avoidance of foods that contain omega-6 fatty acids.
  • However, our consistently higher intakes of this particular fat need to be curbed, since more is certainly NOT better.

FYI: in reference to this post’s accompanying photograph, there is no reason to ever supplement omega-6 in pill form.

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You Ask, I Answer: Peanuts vs. Tree Nuts

peanuts-peeledA peanut butter sandwich is as American as apple pie.

What are your thoughts on peanut butter, though?

I’ve been hearing that peanuts, which I know are actually legumes, aren’t as healthy as tree nuts.

Should I be making my sandwiches with almond butter instead?

– Fred (Last name withheld)
Brooklyn, NY

I don’t have any issues with peanuts or peanut butter.

When it comes to nuts (and, yes, for the sake of this post we’ll treat peanuts as such), my recommendation is to always have one serving of some nut every day.

One serving is made up of 13 walnuts halves.  In the case of almonds, that’s 23 individual pieces.  If you’re talking pistachios, you’re looking at 49 kernels!

The issue with nuts is that you could label any one as “better” or “worse” than the next, depending on what criteria you use.

Consider these lists I compiled:

FIBER CONTENT (per ounce)

  • Almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios: 3 grams
  • Brazil nuts, walnuts, peanuts: 2 grams
  • Cashews: 1 gram

PROTEIN CONTENT (per ounce)

  • Peanuts: 7 grams
  • Almonds, pistachios: 6 grams
  • Cashews: 5 grams
  • Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, walnuts: 4 grams
  • Pecans: 3 grams

MONOUNSATURATED (heart-healthy!) FAT (per ounce)

  • Hazelnuts: 12.9 grams
  • Pecans: 11.5 grams
  • Almonds: 8.7 grams
  • Brazil nuts, peanuts: 6.9 grams
  • Cashews: 6.7 grams
  • Pistachios: 6.6 grams

OMEGA 3: OMEGA 6 RATIO (per ounce)

  • Walnuts: 1:4
  • Pecans: 1:20
  • Pistachios: 1:51
  • Hazelnuts: 1:89
  • Cashews: 1:125
  • Brazil nuts: 1:1,139
  • Almonds: 1:2,181
  • Peanuts: 1:5,491

All of them, meanwhile, are good sources of vitamin E, magnesium, and manganese.  Calorie amounts range from 155 (cashews) to 195 (pecans).

I always recommend varying your nut intake since each variety contains unique phytonutrients and antioxidants that have been linked to an array of health benefits.

Peanuts, for example, are a wonderful source of resveratrol (the same antioxidant in red wine and grape skins), while pecans contain high amounts of beta-sisterol, a cholesterol-lowering phytonutrient.

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You Ask, I Answer: Tempeh vs. Tofu

Sliced_tempehIn some of your posts, you have mentioned that tempeh (pictured, left) is more nutritious than tofu.

Is that just because tempeh is fermented, or are there more reasons?

– Sarah Bertanke
(Location withheld)

While tempeh’s fermentation process certainly gives it a nutritional (and probiotic!) boost, there is more to this tale.

FYI: Fermentation reduces soybeans’ phytate content, thereby making their zinc and iron much more bioavailable.

Whereas tofu is made by coagulating soy milk with a precipitating agent (in most cases calcium sulfate, thus the high amounts of calcium in tofu), tempeh is made from whole soybeans.

The presence of said soybeans — in some cases along with wild rice or flax — makes tempeh a high-fiber food.

While four ounces of tofu provides 1.5 grams of fiber, that same amount of tempeh adds up to 11 grams!

Due to its “whole food” status, tempeh is also an excellent source of manganese, magnesium, and potassium.

Tempeh is also significantly higher in protein and omega-3 Alpha-Linolenic fatty acids than tofu.

Although I enjoy the taste of both, I am partial to tempeh’s nutty flavors and unique mouth-feel.

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Numbers Game: Answer

JapanMapAdults in Japan consume approximately 7.5 times as many DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids per day as their United States counterparts.

That can certainly help explain why, compared to the United States, Japan has a 40 percent lower rate of deaths from cardiovascular disease and a 70 percent lower rate of deaths from coronary heart disease!

Don’t think this is solely attributed to high intakes of fish (while Japan’s consumption is high, it comes in third — China and Iceland’s intake is higher!)

Japan, however, happens to have the hands-down-highest global per capita consumption of sea vegetables.  Not only are many sea vegetables excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids; they also contain phytonutrients and antioxidants that help lower the risk of developing heart disease and various cancers.

This is why I strongly support the “Mediterrasian” style of eating, which takes heart-healthy cues from traditional Mediterranean (i.e.: olive oil, legumes, nuts, and seeds) and Asian dietary patterns (dark leafy greens, fatty fish/sea vegetables).

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Numbers Game: Omega-3s For The Win!

Japan_mapAdults in Japan consume approximately ____ times as many DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids per day as their United States counterparts.

a) 3
b) 4.5
c) 6.25
d) 7.5

Leave your guess in the “comments” section and come back on Wednesday to find out the answer.

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