Tag Archives: nutrition

Featured Food: Acai Berry

Acai Berry….superfood or not?

I just came back from visiting Brazil and had the chance to spend a few days in the Amazon Rainforest.  And I’m not going to lie, I was all about the acai berry when I was down there.  From acai berry sorbet on the beach to acai berry jam in the amazon, I was in love!  I even brought back acai berry jewelry!  When you’re in this region, it’s hard to ignore this amazing fruit, especially after all the hype you hear about it.  But does this superfood live up to all the hype back in the US?

So what is the acai berry? The acai berry comes from the acai palm tree (photographed below) which is native to Central and South America, particularly in the Amazon region.  The fruit is small, round and the pulp is a black-purple color.  The seed makes up about 80% of the fruit and the remaining is a viscous pulp that can be eaten raw or as a juice.  The fruit pulp contains about 4% protein and 12% lipids, with the majority of lipids being a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid. Not only is the acai berry a complete food containing all the macronutrients, additionally, they are rich in nutrients like vitamins A, C, and E, calcium, phosphorus, iron, thiamine, and are most known for containing antioxidants like polyphenols and anthocyanins.

What are the Health Benefits of Acai Berry?

Ever since Oprah and Dr. Oz presented the acai berry as a “super food” the food industry has been all over trying to make all sorts of acai products with numerous health claims.  Unfortunately, many of the health claims are not true, at least not from any scientific studies done so far.  That being said, the one health benefit we do know is true about acai berries is it’s antioxidant power.  Animal studies and  in vitro studies have found that acai berry is a very powerful antioxidant.  Research has shown that anthocyanins and polyphenols in the acai berry are  antioxidants that help defend the body against life’s stressors. They also play a role in the body’s cell protection system. Free radicals are harmful byproducts produced by the body. Eating a diet rich in antioxidants may interfere with aging and the disease process by neutralizing free radicals.  Antioxidants in general may help reduce the risk of some diseases, such as heart disease and cancer by lessening the destructive power of free radicals in the body.  

In addition, an animal study also found that regular consumption of acai berries improved lipid profiles in rabbits and rats, which could  help reduce risks of heart disease.  However, this has not been tested in humans yet so is still a bit of a stretch to claim this as a health benefit just yet.  I did find one study conducted in humans which was a pilot trial with only 10 participants aimed at looking at whether or not acai berry could improve the metabolic profile of overweight adults.  This study found that participants that consumed the acai berry pulp regularly had improved cholesterol, triglyceride, and insulin levels after just 30 days.  This is a promising study but unfortunately because it was done in such a small sample and specific subset of individuals of overweight and unhealthy adults, the results are not generalizable to the public– so again we don’t know for sure how beneficial the acai berry can be in lowering cholesterol and triglycerides in humans just yet.  However, it does prove the need for additional research to explore these and other potential health benefits in humans.

Another study actually found that red wine, pomegranate, grape juice and blueberry juice actually have higher antioxidant power than acai juice.  So just remember that all the health claims made by acai berry product manufacturers like helps fight heart disease, helps people lose weight, prevents aging, stops cancer, improves sexual performance, improves digestion, improves sleep, improves arthritis, and improves general health,  are mostly not yet proven scientifically in humans yet or can be  achieved from antioxidants from other berries such as blueberries, pomograntes, etc.

Source: acaiberryeducation.com

How to eat it?

I enjoyed eating my fair share of acai berry when I was traveling in Brazil, but until the health benefits of the açaí berry are scientifically proven, it seems more reasonable, cheaper, and safer to get your antioxidants from other fruit and vegetable sources rich in antioxidants like blueberries, pomegranates, strawberries, etc that are more readily available in the U.S.

Until further research is done, I would avoid any acai berry supplements since they have not yet been studied extensively and we do not yet know if the health benefits from the acai berry resembles that from supplements.  Additionally, I would definitely be suspicious of “free-trial offers” for acai products.

However, if you do want to try some acai berry products, here’s a few suggestions:

  1. Buy freeze-dried acai berry and use in smoothies.  Here’s a recipe you can use.
  2. Eat acai berry as part of flavored products like ice cream, sorbets, and jellies.  Each brand and food product has different amounts and forms of acai berry in their products so keep in mind this may not be the best method of getting your antioxidants.
  3. As a juice– but remember some juices are better than others.  Make sure to read the ingredients and nutrition label.  Many are mixed with other juices and contain a lot of added sugars which would generally cancel out the benefit from the antioxidants of the acai berry.  So if you’re not drinking it just for the flavor, make sure to read the labels to ensure you minimize the added sugar and other ingredients.
  4. I also started seeing chocolate covered acai berry on the market.  I took a look at the label and it seems that they don’t always use the actual fruit but they use the acai berry fruit juice or pulp mixed with other juices, then diped in chocolate.  So again, seems like all the processing and added ingredients may outweigh any benefit received from the antioxidants.

Overall, my recommendation is to get your antioxidants from other berries that are easily available and cheaper in the U.S. until 1.) more research is done and in fact shows that acai berries are indeed much more beneficial to your health than other fruits 2.) fresh or freeze dried acai berry is more readily available in the U.S.

If you like acai berry products, that’s fine, but just make sure you’re eating those products for the taste and flavor and not just for the health benefits since often times these products contain lot’s of added sugars and ingredients.  And last, if you go to South America, enjoy all the acai berry you can get :).  Natural, fresh, and tastes so good!

Me in Rio having fresh Acai sorbet 🙂

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Is ALL red meat bad for you?

Earlier this week, the LA Times published an article called “All Red meat is risky” based on a new study released by the Harvard School of Public Health that found increased risk of premature death with increased red meat consumption.  Some notable conclusions included that one 3 oz. serving of red meat per day was associated with 13% increased chance of premature death and change that to processed meat it jumps up to 20% increased chance of premature death. 

Source: LA Times

The article had stated that eating any kind of red meat in any amount was bad for you.  Now before you go and give up red meat completely, I wanted to share a few key points/thoughts I had after reading the published study.  I hope they help put things into perspective and help you make more realistic decisions.

  1. Dietary intake over the 20 years of the study was assessed using a Food Frequency Questionnaire (FFQ).  While FFQ’s are the best dietary assessment tool we have aside from controlled feeding studies, they still are inherently flawed. They ask participants to retroactively remember what they eat, make estimates and guesses, and in many cases over simplify ones diet so it’s important to keep this in mind when making drastic changes and conclusions based on studies using FFQs.
  2. While the study did separate out unprocessed red meat from processed red meat, it does not separate out organic from non-organic or grass-fed red meat, and also the various types of leaner cuts of red meat from fattier forms.
  3. The study also found that replacing 1 serving of total red meat with 1 serving of fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy products, or whole grains daily was associated with a lower risk of total mortality: 7% for fish, 14% for poultry, 19% for nuts, 10% for legumes, 10% for low-fat dairy products, and 14% for whole grains.  This shows that by including other things in your diet and substituting some of your servings of red meat for healthier alternatives can help reduce the risk associated with red meat consumption.

In addition, about a month ago, a study from Japan with more than 51,000 men and women over 16 years found no connection between moderate meat consumption up to 3 ounces a day and premature death and another study from the Havard School of Public Health on red meat also found no connection between red meat consumption and heart disease and diabetes, though it did find an association with processed red meat consumption and heart disease and diabetes.

I also found the absolute risks of red meat consumption from the latest study on Harvard’s blog and it puts things into better perspective:


Deaths per 1,000 people per year

1 serving unprocessed meat a week

2 servings unprocessed meat a day

Women

7.0

8.5

3 servings unprocessed meat a week

2 servings unprocessed meat a day

Men

12.3

13.0

Source: http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/study-urges-moderation-in-red-meat-intake-201203144490

The bottom line is that if you do eat red meat, processed red meat should be avoided or greatly limited in our diet (things like hot dogs, bacon, fast food hamburgers, pepperoni, etc.) and that unprocessed red meat should be eaten in moderation (1-3 times a week).

In addition, I find it interesting that the study in Japan found no connection between red meat consumption and premature death.  From my experience visiting Japan, I think there are three reasons that may be the case.

1. Japanese don’t eat very much red meat in general and have a diet high in fish compared to Americans.

2. Their red meat is much more likely to be organic and grass-fed than most meat Americans eat.

3. When they do eat red meat, the serving is generally less than 3 ounces and is prepared as thin slices either boiled or lightly seared.

I think more research is needed to make firm conclusions about whether or not grass-fed red meat is in fact much healthier and what amounts and cooking methods minimize risk, but based off ecological studies and comparisons, it may be true that what we feed our cows in America has an effect on how red meat affects our health, in addition to how much processed meats Americans tend to eat.

So when you do eat red meat, try to choose more unprocessed red meats and try to consume leaner cuts.  Below is a few of the extra lean cuts for you to choose from.

Extra Lean Cuts of Beef:

  • Eye of round roast or steak
  • Sirloin tip side steak
  • Top round roast and steak
  • Bottom round roast and steak
  • Top sirloin steak

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Nutrition Fact: More than 25% of Americans are Vitamin D Insufficient

Are YOU Getting Enough Vitamin D?

It seems like Vitamin D has been the “fashionable” vitamin over the past few years mainly because there has been a trend in research suggesting vitamin D deficiency/insufficiency may play a role in various diseases other than just bone health.  Additionally, while the the Institute of Medicine (IOM) increased their recommendations and upper limits for vitamin D for optimum bone health in 2010,  other experts don’t agree with those recommendations and more and more research is showing increased intake may protect against several chronic diseases.  So, with all the controversy and inconclusive evidence out there how do you tease out what you really need to know about Vitamin D?  Let’s start by understanding what vitamin D is and where you get it from.     

What is Vitamin D? 

Vitamin D is a family of fat-soluble vitamins which functions to regulate calcium and phosphorus homeostasis.  Additional functions include:

  1.  Helps maintain bone health
  2. Aids in cell differentiation of hemotapoietic and epithelial cells
  3. Enhances immunity
  4. Helps reduce inflammation
  5. Aids in regulation of blood pressure and insulin

Aside from these known functions Vitamin D plays, new research suggests that vitamin D status may also be linked to chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, cognitive decline, depression, diabetes, pregnancy complications, and some autoimmune diseases.  Although the link between Vitamin D and these chronic diseases is still inconclusive, it’s not surprising that there has been a dramatic increase in sales in Vitamin D supplements and manufactures of the vitamin dues to evidence of protection against certain chronic diseases.

Where do I get Vitamin D from? 

Vitamin D is mostly obtained through skin exposure to UV B light where it is converted to the active form for Vitamin D (D3) in our skin.   Some Vitamin D is also obtained from the diet in fortified foods such as milk, cereals, and juices as well as some natural foods such as some fish (i.e. salmon and sardines) and liver.  But more recently many have been receiving vitamin D from supplements which either come in the form of D2 or D3.

Because most of our Vitamin D supply comes from sunlight, there are certain populations that are at risk of deficiency because they convert less sunlight to Vitamin D from their skin.  This includes:

  • Those with darker skin tones.  The increased melanin reduces conversion of sunlight to Vitamin D.
  • Those that don’t expose skin in the sunlight or wear high levels of sunblock all the time.  Clothing and sunblock inhibit the conversion of Vitamin D from sunlight.
  • Those that live in geographies that have less sun exposure.
What are the recommendations for Vitamin D intake?  

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) who puts out the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs) for nutrients makes the following recommendations for Vitamin D:

Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Vitamin D
Set by the Institute of Medicine
Life Stage  Age  Males
mcg/day (IU/day)
Females
mcg/day (IU/day)
Infants 0-6 months 400 IU (AI) 400 IU (AI)
Infants 6-12 months 400 IU (AI) 400 IU (AI)
Children 1-3 years 600 IU 600 IU
Children 4-8 years 600 IU 600 IU
Children 9-13 years 600 IU 600 IU
Adolescents 14-18 years 600 IU 600 IU
Adults 19-50 years 600 IU 600 IU
Adults 51-70 years 600 IU 600 IU
Adults 71 years and older 800 IU 800 IU
Pregnancy all ages 600 IU
Breast-feeding all ages 600 IU

Credit: Linus Pauling Institute on Micronutrients 

The IOM also set the tolerable Upper Limits for Children 9 years and older at 4,000 IU/ day to prevent any toxicity from over consumption of Vitamin D.  It’s important to keep in mind that these are conservative recommendations based only on the IOM’s review of the research related to optimum bone health.  Many other experts are now recommending increased intake of vitamin D in light of new research linking increased Vitamin D status to lower risk of certain chronic diseases and based on data from a NHANES study showing that about 30% of Americans are Vitamin D deficient or at risk of being deficient according to IOM serum Vitamin D levels for optimum bone health.  I personally was tested two years ago and was severely deficient as well.  In order also project against some chronic diseases, some experts such as the Vitamin D Council are now recommending as much as 5,000 IU/day for adults.

SO WHAT DO I RECOMMEND?

I think it’s still too early to be recommending everyone to start taking high dose Vitamin D supplements to protect against various chronic diseases, however, there is promising research for additional benefits with increased Vitamin D coupled with the fact that many Americans are in fact not getting enough Vitamin D from sunlight or the diet so I would recommend the following to increase your intake of Vitamin D:

  1. Get tested.  Testing your Vitamin D level is a simple blood test and especially if your insurance covers it, I would recommend it.  That will give you a basis on how much Vitamin D supplements, if any you really need.  There are also tests you can do at home with a simple blood pinch that are fairly inexpensive with decent accuracy to give you some idea of your Vitamin D levels.
  2. Try consuming more Vitamin D rich foods from your diet.  Natural is ALWAYS better so make sure you’re including enough milk, salmon, and other fortified foods in your diet to help increase your Vitamin D intake.
  3. Try to expose enough skin (arms and/or legs) to at least 5-15 minutes of sunlight twice a day.  That amount of time without sunblock should provide you with more than enough Vitamin D while still minimizing risk to harmful side effects of sun exposure.  Additional plus is that you can’t get Vitamin D toxicity from Vitamin D synthesized from sunlight, only from too much supplement or intake from the diet.
  4. If you do wish to take supplements, or if your doctor recommends it, make sure you take Vitamin  D3 over D2 which research indicates may be up to three times more potent.

After I finished my prescription dose of Vitamin D to get me back to a healthy blood level,  my doctor recommends to get between 1,000- 2,000 IU/ day so I eat fortified foods and take a 1,000 IU supplement daily.  That recommendation is based on the fact that I don’t get much sun exposure living in Seattle, have darker skin, and that my levels were low.  So before you start popping 1,000 IU or 2,000 IU Vitamin D supplements per day, I would recommend you get your levels tested and try moderate sun exposure and diet before you choose supplements.  That will prevent any potential toxicity from too much Vitamin D intake and will save you money…and who doesn’t need to save money right?

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Nutrition Fact: Not All Calories are Equal, Especially Liquid Calories.

Why liquid calories are different… 

Ever heard that a calorie is a calorie and that weight loss/gain is simply a matter of calories in versus calories out?  Well, while that theoretically is true, the reality is that our bodies process calories from different sources differently, and liquid calories are no exception.  The mechanisms for controlling thirst and hunger differ in our bodies.  So while liquid calories may quench our thirst, they do very little when it comes to curbing our hunger.

One of the reasons liquid calories act differently is because they travel faster through our intestinal tract which affects the nutrient absorption rate leading to altered effects on satiety hormones.  What does this mean?  Basically that 100 calories from a soda will not curb your hunger as well as 100 calories from something like an apple or other solid foods in general.

Ok but why is this important?

  1. Liquid calories add up fast and don’t keep you full! A 12 oz of cola contains 140 calories; A 12 oz. latte made with whole milk contains 180 calories; 16 oz. ice cream milkshake has 625 calories. But because they don’t provide the same satiety as solid calories, you usually just end up consuming more calories than you need. (Remember that every 3,500 calories eaten above your needs = 1 pound of fat gained)
  2. Liquid calories can lead to increased weight gain.  A recent Harvard Nurse’s Health study of more than 50,000 women over eight years found that those who increased their intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, such as sodas or fruit punch, from one per week to one or more per day consumed an average of 358 extra calories per day and gained a significant amount of weight. And vice versa, the women who reduced their intake cut their calories by an average of 319 and gained less weight.
  3. Most liquid calories are high in sugar!  

    Drinks

    Estimated Sugar Content

    Soda (8 oz) 22 g
    Fruit Smoothie (10 oz) 34-50 g
    Sports Drinks (8 oz) 7g
    Fruit Juice (8 oz) 24 g
    Energy Drinks (12 oz) 42 g

I know when you’re working all day or on the go, you need something sweet and caffeinated right?  Grabbing a latte or soda is just the easy thing to do.  But if you want to avoid liquid calories creeping up on you, here’s a few ideas for healthy alternatives or substitutions to try in situations like that:

  • Instead of soda, try sparkling water and squeeze a slice of lemon, lime, an orange, or even add a hint of fruit juice for a lower calorie, less sugar sweet alternative.  Added bonus, sparkling water does not contain phosphoric acid like most sodas which is bad for your bones.  
  • Instead of a normal latte, use soy or non-fat milk instead for a lower calorie drink or just coffee or tea and go easy on the sugar or sweetener.  
  • If you like drinking alcoholic cocktails, try ordering a glass of wine or lite beer instead for a lower calorie alcoholic beverage
  • When it comes to smoothies, just order the smallest portion to keep calories under control.  Usually smoothies come in 16oz servings or more so go for the half portions.  
  • And remember, water is always your best option to quench your thirst.  Your body needs 8-10 glasses a day!  

So next time you’re debating whether that drink is worth it, think twice before you drink those liquid calories =)

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