Friday, 31 October 2008

Blame the food dyes on your kids' hyperactivity this Halloween

Happy Halloween!

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released the following statement, just in time for Halloween:

"British candy has all the sugar of American candy, and it’s certainly not health food, but as Halloween approaches, it's a shame that American kids trick-or-treat for candy dyed with discredited chemicals while British families have many of the same foods, minus the dyes."

That’s because earlier this year the UK’s equivalent to the American’s FDA, the UK’s Food Standards Agency, asked food companies to voluntarily recall artificial colours in food by 2009. Moreover, the European Parliament approved a warning on packages containing food dyes: “May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”.


Although synthetic food dyes have been suspected of affecting children’s behaviour since the 70s, two recent British studies found a direct link between food dyes (with the common preservative sodium benzoate) and impaired attention and hyperactivity in children.

According to the FDA, Americans consume 5 times as much food dye as they did 30 years ago. Attention Deficit Disorder is also a growing concern for many parents. However, the FDA and Health Canada maintain that there isn’t sufficient evidence to ban the use of food dyes. As a result, The CSPI has submitted a petition to the FDA requesting they ban eight artificial food colours: Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 3, Red 40, Orange B and Yellow 6 (tartrazine). They’re also requesting that the FDA include warnings on packages containing these food dyes.

In the UK, Fanta orange soda gets its colour from pumpkin and carrot extract, while in the States, it gets its colour from Red 40 and Yellow 6. McDonald’s strawberry sundaes are coloured with Red 40 in North America but with real strawberries in the U.K. Starburst Chews and Skittles, both Mars products, also contain synthetic food dyes in the U.S. but not in the U.K.

Hope I didn’t put a downer on your Halloween. Enjoy your Halloween candy... in moderation, of course!

Remember that October 31st is not just about candy, it’s National Unicef Day. On Oct 31st 1949, five goodhearted kids went door-to-door in Philadelphia to collect money for other kids in post war Europe. They raised $17 and donated it to Unicef. ‘Trick-or-Treat for Unicef’ was launched and in 1966, US President Lyndon Johnson pronounced October 31st National Unicef Day, stating: “Mrs. Johnson and I hope that our fellow citizens this year will once again join in bringing the opportunity for a better life to more of the world's children."

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Cup of coffee shrinks cup size

A new Swedish study published in the British Journal of Cancer has found a link between coffee intake and breast size.

About 300 healthy pre-menopausal non-hormone using women were questioned about their coffee intake and had their bust measured. It was found that the women who drank 3+ cups of coffee a day had ~17% smaller breasts than those that drank less. However, this relationship was found only in women that were carriers of a specific genetic variant. The good news for these women is that previous studies have shown that coffee may protect carriers of this same genetic variant against breast cancer. About half the women in this study were carriers of this gene.

Lead author Helena Jernstrom stated that although “Drinking coffee can have a major effect on breast women don’t have to worry ... breasts aren’t just going to disappear.”

Health Canada recommends you not exceed 400mg caffeine a day. Women in their childbearing years should not consume more than 300mg. A generically brewed cup of coffee has between 100-200 mg caffeine.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Western diet causes heart attacks

Researchers at McMaster University found that a ‘Western diet’ increases the risk of heart attacks by 35%, regardless of what country you live in.

The study, which was published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, looked at food frequency (of 19 food groups, adjusted for food preferences per country) results of 5761 people that have had heart attacks and 10,646 people without known heart disease from 52 countries.

3 different dietary groups were identified:

1. Prudent diet- People in this group ate more fruits and vegetables and had a 30% lower risk of heart attack compared to people who ate less fruits and veggies.

2. Western diet- Individuals in this group ate more fried foods, salty snacks, eggs and meat. As

mentioned above, this type of diet was associated with a 35% greater risk of heart attack than those that ate less meat, fat and salt.

3. Oriental diet- This diet was higher in tofu as well as soy sauce. This diet had no relationship with heart attack risk, despite its high sodium level. The researchers suggest that the healthy aspects of this diet-low in meat and relatively higher in vegetables- counteract the effect of the high sodium. Nonetheless, they note that the high salt could increase stroke risk, which was not looked at in this study.

Although we’ve known for a while that a diet high in animal protein, fat and salt increases the risk of heart disease, what this study shows us is that this same relationship exists in other regions around the world.

Bottom line:

Eat lots of vegetables and fruit, reduce your intake of fried foods, meat and salty foods. ... Duh.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Food is medicine

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food!” -Hippocrates (460-377 BC)

“Nature is the best physician: She heals three quarters of all diseases and never badmouths her colleagues.”

-Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)

Friday, 17 October 2008

Big dishes, Big portions

We know that larger portion sizes result in weight gain, but did you know that your dishes and utensils also affect how much you eat?

Dr. Brian Wansink founded the Cornell Food and Brand Lab where his research focuses on the factors that influence what and how much people eat and how much they enjoy it. He published many of his findings in his great book, Mindless Eating: Why we eat more than we think.

Check out this upside down T. Which line do you think is longer: the vertical one or the horizontal one?

The vertical one looks longer, right? In fact, they’re actually the same length!

According to Wansink, our brains have the tendency to overfocus on the height of objects at the expense of their width.

His research found that when kids poured themselves juice into short wide glasses, they poured themselves 74% more juice compared to those that used tall thin glasses. What's more, they thought they had poured themselves less juice than they had! That’s because you get the impression that there's less juice when it's in a short fat glass compared to in a tall skinny glass.

The same study done on adults found that they poured 19% more soda into short wide glasses compared to tall thin glasses!

Here’s another. Which orange circle looks bigger?

The one on the right appears bigger, but they’re actually the same size!

Wansink explains that we us background objects as a benchmark for estimating size.

He conducted a study where professors and PhD students from the Nutritional Science Division were invited to an ice cream social. They were randomly given either a 17-ounce or a 34-ounce bowl and could serve themselves ice cream using either a 2-ounce or 3-ounce ice cream scoop.

What Wansink found was that the larger the bowl, the larger the portion size. Those that received the larger bowls unknowingly served themselves 31% more ice cream than those with smaller bowls! Those that got the large bowls and used the larger serving spoons served themselves, and ate, nearly 57% more ice cream than those with smaller bowls and spoons! And these were nutrition experts...

If weight loss is a goal for you, you may want to start using smaller dishes and utensils!

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Post-exercise GI distress and dehydration

Over Thanksgiving weekend, my best friend ran a half marathon as training for his second marathon that he’ll be running in December. Even if it was just a training run and he had had a cold the week prior to the race, preventing him to run, James still finished in 4th place with a time of 1:30:03! Not too shabby!

However, about an hour after the race, James started to experience incapacitating waves of stomach cramps that lasted over 24 hours. What caused this gastrointestinal distress?

The most likely explanation: dehydration.

Suzanne Girard Eberle RD explains in her book, Endurance Sports Nutrition, that during prolonged exercise, your body diverts blood from your colon to your active muscles and skin that need it more. When you’re dehydrated, this situation is exacerbated since dehydration causes a decrease in blood volume, so there’s even less blood available to the large intestine. This causes a whole array of gastrointestinal problems. It slows gastric emptying, meaning that food and fluids sit in your stomach rather than passing through your intestine, causing abdominal discomfort, bloating and cramping. The lack of blood flow can also seriously damage the walls of your colon, potentially causing ‘athletic colitis’, aka ischaemic colitis. Symptoms include diarrhea during exercise, but not at other times, extreme abdominal pain and bloody stools. If you experience these symptoms, you should go to the emergency room as it is a serious condition. There are 3 documented cases of elite triathletes that have had to have parts of their colons surgically removed as a result of athletic colitis. Luckily, early recognition and appropriate management, that includes intravenous rehydration and antibiotics, lead to complete resolution of symptoms and no long term damage.

Another indication that James was probably dehydrated is his performance. Although 1h30 is a great time for a half marathon, believe it or not, James is capable of running even faster! Studies have shown that for every 1% loss of body weight, athletes slow down by 2%. A 150-lbs runner that loses just 3lbs water (2% body weight loss), will slow down by 4%. At 8min/mile, that’s 20 seconds/mile. That’s a lot. Moreover, a loss of 2lbs water can increase your heart rate by 8 beats/minute- that’ll tire you out quickly.

Apart from dehydration, other possible factors that could have contributed to James’ stomach cramps include:

The intestinal jostling caused by running,

Exercise-induced changes in GI hormones,

Mental stress (he did want to impress me...!) that can actually slow down gastric emptying,

NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). James took an Advil before the race. Many athletes take anti-inflammatory drugs (ie.s NSAIDs like Advil, Nuprin, Aleve, Actron) before or during long races to minimize pain. However, NSAIDS can cause stomach irritation. Moreover, taking NSAIDs when it’s very hot or when you’re dehydrated can potentially be dangerous as it has been shown to possibly contribute to hyponatremia (low sodium concentration in the blood) and kidney problems. When taking these drugs, be very aware of your fluid intake to prevent dehydration.

Other possible factors that can cause GI distress during exercise (but that were not factors for James) include:

Training status- the more trained you are, the less likely you are to experience GI problems.

Age- younger athletes are more at risk for GI problems- most likely because they may be less trained and have less nutrition knowledge and experience.

Intensity- The more intense the exercise, the more blood is shifted from the intestine to the active muscles, resulting in delayed gastric emptying and GI distress.

Caffeine- Can cause diarrhea and upset stomach.

Gels and too-concentrated liquid solutions- When highly concentrated solutions like gels, juice or soda pop are not diluted with water, they may cause stomach distress. Sports drinks, like Gatorade or Powerade, are diluted to the perfect concentration.

How James can avoid this next time:

Start out hydrated: Adults need about 8-10 cups non-alcoholic fluids a day in addition to drinking before and after exercise.

Stay hydrated: During exercise, drink early and drink often. Aim for 2-3 cups fluid (16-24oz)/hour. (A helpful tip: for the average adult, 1 gulp=1oz; for younger athlete, 2 gulps=1oz). Follow a pre-determined drinking schedule rather than relying on your thirst. Once you feel thirsty, you’ve likely lost 3% of your weight as fluid, resulting in a 10% loss of performance. Plain water is acceptable for activities under an hour (although a sports drink could give you the extra boost you need) but rely on a sports drink when exercising >1 hour.

Replenish your fluids: Weigh yourself before and after exercise- that weight lost is water, not fat! Drink 3 cups non-alcoholic fluids for every pound lost to replenish your fluids.

Congratulations James!

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Eat more, Weigh less

There are many research labs that have as their only purpose to study how we eat.

Dr. Barbara Rolls is a very well known nutrition researcher that has focused the work at her lab at the Penn State Department of Nutritional Sciences on the study of eating behaviour and weight management. One of the things that we’ve learned from work done at various labs is that we eat about the same amount of food each day. Dr. Rolls has done lots of studies on this and has indeed found that the weight of food a person eats is similar from day to day whereas caloric content will vary.

Consequently, according to Rolls, the trick to weight loss is to fill up on food without filling up on calories. She’s written a few books on what she calls the ‘Volumetric Eating Plan’. The principle is simple, if you eat foods that have lots of calories per bite- have a high caloric density- like chips, crackers and cookies- you’ll quickly eat too many calories and gain weight (or not lose the weight you want to lose).The key is water. Water adds weight but doesn’t add calories; it lowers the caloric density of foods. Adding foods that are water-rich to your diet will allow you to eat the same amount of food as usual, so you won’t feel deprived, while providing you with less calories, helping you to lose weight.

  • If you have a broth-based soup or a salad (with a little or no dressing) before a meal , you’re likely to consume less total calories during the meal.
  • Bulk up stews, chilis, casseroles and sauces with water-rich vegetables like tomatoes, broccoli and carrots.
  • Sneak vegetables and fruit into your diet whenever possible.
  • Add berries or other fruit to your cereal.
  • Add lettuce, tomatoes and other vegetables into your sandwich or hamburger.

Rolls’ Volumetric Eating Plan also includes choosing foods high in fibre (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes) that will help fill you up, lowering fat intake and exercise.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Sugar and hyper kids

True or False, sugar makes kids hyperactive?


They’ve studied this pretty intensely and, contrary to what many parents will tell you, sugar does not make kids hyper.

Kids tend to eat sweet stuff on special occasions- sleepovers, holidays, movies, parties- occasions when kids are excited and active anyways, thus giving the impression it’s the sugar’s fault... when it’s not.

The research has also found that parents’ beliefs affect what they see. 2 groups of children were given the same drink but the parents of one group were told their kids were given a sugar-containing drink whereas the other group of parents were told their kids were given a drink containing no sugar. When asked to evaluate their kids’ behaviours after consuming the drink, the parents that thought their kids consumed the sweet drink reported that their kids were more rambunctious compared to the other group of parents.

But just because it doesn't cause kids to be overactive, doesn't mean sugar's good for them!

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Can the ONQI help you in the grocery store?

What's the better choice:
a. Hellmann’s Regular Mayonnaise or b. Hellmann’s Light Mayonnaise?
a. Regular Smooth Peanut Butter or b. Reduced Fat Peanut Butter?
a. Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes or b. Kellogg’s Reduced Sugar Frosted Flakes?

Dr. Katz from Yale University’s Griffin Prevention Research Centre has developed a tool that can help you answer these questions; it’s called the Overall Nutritional Quality Index (
ONQI). It’s a system that scores foods from 1 to 100 based on a variety of nutritional criteria including calories, sugar, sodium, fibre and fat, with the goal of helping consumers choose among the over 45000 products found in the average grocery store.
If you live in the States, you will likely see the ONQI scores in your local supermarket very soon, if it’s not there already.
Using the ONQI, all the answers in the above cases are a.
Some food items that are scored highest according to the ONQI scale (scores of 100) include broccoli, blueberries, oranges and green beans.
Some of the items that are scored lowest include popsicle, soda and taffy (all with scores of 1), saltine crackers and regular cut bacon (scores of 2).
Sound like a pretty good system.

However, according to Marion Nestle (Professor of Nutrition and Public Health) , it’s far from perfect. She points out that the scale makes some highly processed foods look better than other highly processed foods (see the Frosted Flakes example above) and is all about marketing, not health. She takes the position that the ONQI should not be allowed and suggest you pay no attention to it if you happen to see it in the grocery store.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

What to avoid when eating out

Chef Anthony Bourdain, in his acclaimed book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, lists a few things he's weary of when eating out.
Here are some of them.
He avoids 'Discount Sushi'.
He never orders fish on Mondays (in NY restaurants). According to Bourdain, the fish market in New York is closed on Friday, therefore fish is ordered Thursday for the busy weekend and the second order goes in Monday for Tuesday. As such, the fish served Monday is 4-5 days old. Tuesdays and Thursdays are the best days to order fish.
Tuesdays are the best days to eat out. Chefs usually get Sunday and/or Monday off and food orders come in for Tuesday... so the chef is well rested, the food is fresh and it's not busy, allowing the chef and staff to take care of you. Food is fresh Friday and Saturday but the kitchen staff is really busy therefore aren't paying as much attention.
Bourdain doesn't eat mussels in restaurants unless he knows the chef or seen for himself how they're stored or cooked. In only takes one bad mussel to make you very very sick.
He avoids Hollondaise sauce. This sauce is an emulsion of egg yolks and clarified butter and has to be held at room temperature. Bourdain has never known of any restaurant to make this sauce to order, meaning it sits at room temperature for a long time, allowing bacteria to fester.
Bourdain points out that in most restaurants, the bread is recycled off of people's tables. Although this doesn't bother him much, if it bothers you, you may want to avoid it!
He doesn't eat in restaurants with dirty bathrooms. Bathrooms are relatively easy to clean, kitchens aren't.
According to Bourdain, the key is rotation. A varied menu and a half empty dining room is a bad combination.
Bon App├ętit!