Enjoy — and keep the queries coming!
I’ve recently started eating quinoa; I love the texture and flavour!
I read that it was a good source of iron (which is great for me since I work out 6 times a week and am trying to eat less meat), but then read elsewhere that it contains oxalates, which inhibit iron absorption.
Can you shed some light?
— Jennifer Lee
Quinoa is indeed high in oxalic acid.
If you are looking for plant-based sources of iron, prioritize lentils, black beans, chickpeas, fermented soy products (tempeh and natto) and sea vegetables (nori, dulse, and wakame). They all offer good amounts of iron and contain lower levels oxalic acid (they are also relatively low in phytic acid, another compound that inhibits iron absorption).
Keep in mind that you can increase the iron absorption of these foods by eating them alongside foods high in vitamin C (you can also accomplish this by eating them alongside meat, but that’s a moot point since you are trying to lower your intake).
Another crucial tidbit for maximum iron absorption: leave at least a 45-minute window between a meal and the consumption of coffee or tea (both contain tannins, which severely inhibit iron absorption).
FYI: The ubiquity of oxalic and phytic acid in many plant-based sources of iron means that vegetarians and vegans have higher iron needs than omnivores (whereas an omnivorous woman of childbearing age requires 18 mg a day, her vegetarian and vegan counterparts require 33 mg).
The human body is very smart, though, and goes to great lengths to ensure iron levels are as high as possible. For example, some studies have determined that subjects on plant-based diets excrete less ferritin (an iron-storage protein) in their fecal matter than omnivores. Also, iron absorption is increased when stores are low.
Any truth to this chart that links cravings of certain foods to specific nutrient deficiences?
— Kate Redfern
None. Cravings can be triggered by a variety of factors — emotional states, visual cues (hello, advertising!), smells, and hormonal changes.
The idea that cravings relate to nutrient deficiencies simply isn’t true. If that were the case, then most Americans would be craving high fiber foods and dark leafy greens, rather than Oreos and Doritos. Also, individuals with iron deficiencies would crave iron-rich foods, not chalk or crushed ice.
That chart makes some especially outrageous claims (i.e.: “overeating is the result of a silicon deficiency”).
I’ve recently started to wonder about all the bad ingredients used in chewing gum.
Could you enlighten us on what to look out for? Do you have any suggestions for better alternatives?
— Josh Correia
Most commercial chewing gums contain sweeteners (either natural, artificial, or sugar alcohols), artificial flavors, controversial additives like butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) — banned in some countries — and that ever-so-vague ingredient: “gum base”.
The biggest brands’ gum base is made from petroleum-based polymers (yes, it is also what plastic bags and rubber tires are made from).
While the amount of aspartame in a stick of gum is significantly lower than that of diet soda (a stick of gum contains 6 – 8 mg, while a 12-ounce can of Diet Coke offers 180 mg), many people — myself included — aren’t too keen on chewing on a combination of artificial sweeteners, artificial additives, and polyethylene.
Some companies sell real chewing gum; that is to say, the gum base is made from chicle (a gum sourced from Sapodilla trees), rather than synthetic polymers. The most widely available brand I’m familiar with is Glee Gum.
PS: the average American chews 300 pieces of gum a year. And, for those of you curious about exactly how most commercial chewing gum is made, here is a short-and-sweet summary.
Someone recently told me that celery has a high sodium content. True?
— Amy Clemente
False. A medium stalk of celery contains 32 milligrams of sodium (that’s an almost-negligible 1.5 percent of the daily recommended limit). Higher than other vegetables, nevertheless an insignificant amount. Consider the sodium content of these common foods:
- 1/4 cup salted peanuts: 135 mg
- 1 slice of bread: 150 – 180 mg (average)
- 1 Tablespoon ketchup: 160 mg
- 1 cup yogurt: 180 mg (average)
- 1 cup Kellogg’s Raisin Bran cereal: 350 mg
- Dunkin’ Donuts blueberry bagel: 620 mg
What is your recommendation for daily sugar intake? I can’t find a consistent recommendation. Is it okay if the sugars are coming from real food, or should those be limited as well? Thank you!
— Cara (Last Name Unknown)
I am in agreement with the American Heart Association on this one. Sugar should comprise, at most, 5 percent of total calories. When I say ‘sugar’ I mean “added sugars” (unless you are drinking significant quantities of fruit juice, which I am not very fond of). Remember, sugar can take on many aliases.
Here’s how you figure what “5 percent of total calories” means in grams. Nice round numbers help, so let’s consider someone with a caloric recommendation of 2,000 calories.
- 5% of 2000 calories = 100 calories
- 100 calories divided by 4 calories per gram of sugar = 25 grams of sugar
If you want, you can take this one step further:
- 25 grams of sugar divided by 4 grams of sugar per teaspoon = roughly 6 teaspoons of sugar
Personalized calculations aside, the idea is to cut back on added sugar as much as possible.
Given that most people’s daily caloric recommendations fall anywhere between 1800 and 2400 calories, an allotted limit of 20 – 25 grams a day applies to most everyone. FYI: the average American adult currently consumes 88 grams of added sugars on a daily basis.
I’ve recently heard that beans aren’t good because they have anti-nutrients and lectins. Any truth to that?
— @Rozy80 (via Twitter)
Some beans and legumes contain a fair amount of phytic acid, which is considered an anti-nutrient since it decreases the absorption of some minerals (i.e.: iron and zinc).
To argue that they therefore “aren’t good” is hyperbolic and inaccurate. They are a great source of protein, fiber, folate, potassium, magnesium, and consistent intakes have been linked with improved health and reduced risks of Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain cancers. I highly recommend eating two to three cups of beans and legumes each week.
Lectins are a natural insectide found a variety of foods, including beans. When consumed in large quantities, they can cause severe gastrointestinal distress, and it has been theorized that long-term lectin consumption can raise the risk for certain types of cancers.
However, soaking, sprouting, and cooking significantly lower their lectin levels. As long as you eat fully cooked beans (and who doesn’t?), you don’t have anything to worry about.
An organic CSA website recently made the following statement on their homepage:
“Our animals eat a diet of grass and hay, plus organic corn and flax. Grass and flax are part of their diet to insure the fats in our milk are in the healthy balance our bodies need for optimal health. These are the fats that are associated with fish, but in fact are present in very small quantities in farmed fish. Cows eating a healthy diet are a safer source for Omega 3 fats than wild or farmed fish. “
Is it really true that eating beef from cows that were a “healthy” diet contains more Omega 3’s than wild caught fish?
— Kelsey Lepp
Seems like there is some Omega 3 confusion. Let’s review.
There are three types of omega 3 fatty acids: ALA, DHA, and EPA.
ALA is abundant in flax, walnuts, hemp seeds, and chia seeds. Fish offer DHA and EPA (what is often left out of the conversation is that they get DHA from microalgae and EPA from sea vegetables, and humans can too). Different omega-3 fatty acids have different functions, so it is important to distinguish between them.
As far as cattle feed is concerned, flax fortification contributes ALA Omega 3s, while grass contributes some DHA and EPA. Although ALA can be converted to DHA and EPA, the conversion requires a hefty amount of ALA fatty acids.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the average combined amount of DHA and EPA in a serving of grass-fed steak is 35 mg. By comparison, a serving of wild salmon offers, on average, 1,500 milligrams.
I have no idea what they could be referring to with the claim that grass-fed beef “is a safer source of omega-3s than wild salmon”. Wild salmon is not high in mercury or PCBs.
Regardless of cattle feed, Americans would be better off reducing their overall red meat consumption and increasing their intake of plant-based foods.
What do you say to doctors whose belief is that medications are more immediately effective than changes in diet?
— @Bairi (via Twitter)
The end doesn’t justify the means. Medications may be more immediately effective, but many of them also come with unpleasant side effects and health risks. Some people, for instance, are resistant to statins (cholesterol-lowering medications).
There certainly are medical cases where medication is necessary, but a significant number of individuals with high blood pressure, low HDL cholesterol, arthritis, and Type 2 diabetes can improve their conditions with dietary tweaks.
Nutrition therapy is less costly, safer, and more sustainable than medication, and its effectiveness has been consistently proven (I continue to be amazed at the medical professionals who scoff at nutrition as if it didn’t have a body of research backing it up).
The majority of doctors prefer medication simply because it is what they were taught in school. Talk to any medical professional who has studied nutrition and I doubt you will find one that thinks “pills first, nutrition second”.