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Monday, July 30, 2007

Chocolate, the Hipcat Health Food

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Now this is a health trend we can all jump on.

Researchers in Switzerland, go figure, have discovered that eating dark chocolate (74% cocoa, Nestlé Noir Intense) significantly improved arterial function for up to 8 hours. A group of male smokers, known for having a high risk factor of artery dysfunction, were given 40g of dark chocolate. That is an amount equal to about 1 bar of chocolate. Their artery function was tested and showed a statistically significant improvement for up to 8 hours after eating the chocolate.

So should you go out and stock up on chocolate bars, you know, for health purposes?

I hope this study doesn't get too much attention because whatever small benefit could be derived from eating chocolate is certainly offset by the amount of saturated fat and sugar in a candy bar. Well, it looks like it's too late for that. I've seen an article on several high profile sites mentioning it.

This is a perfect example of why people are so confused about what they should be eating to be healthy. Headline-ready studies come out every day with information that people take and run with until it spreads far and wide. Geez, ya think Nestle had anything to do with funding this study. Of course not. Now every Tom, Dick, and Harry can tell you that he's eating a chocolate bar a day to improve his endothelial artery function. What does that mean, you ask? Who gives a crap, it sounds good and I get to eat a chocolate bar every day! Woo Hoo!

If that is your plan, at least maximize the benefits and minimize the downside of eating chocolate by choosing a bar high in cocoa content and only have one occasionally as a treat. Dark chocolate bars tend to have fewer calories, less saturated fat, and a lower sugar content. Due to their lower cocoa content, milk chocolate, baking chocolate, and white chocolate were not shown to have the same health benefits.

Take home message:

If you are really looking for healthier food choices, there are much better options than chocolate. Continue to eat it as an occasional treat, but don't eat more now that it has been shown to have a few small health benefits.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Fat, a necessary nutrient, Part II

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As mentioned in last weeks post, fat is the most maligned of all macro nutrients, carbohydrates being a recent and very close second. The common misconception is that dietary fat leads to more body fat. That is not directly the case. Excess calories, whether from carbohydrates, protein, or fat lead to excess body fat. Since, we need fat in our diets, we should make an effort to consume mostly "good" fats.

Good Fats

Good fats fall into the category of unsaturated fats. Chemically they are more complex than saturated fats and tend to have a "bent" molecular structure. This type of structure causes unsaturated fats to be liquid at room temperature. The two types of unsaturated fats are monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fats. The difference lies in the number and location of double bonds between carbon atoms, but honestly, who really cares about all of that. Both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats may help lower your blood cholesterol level when you use them to replace saturated and trans fats in your diet.

Monounsaturated Fat

Monounsaturated fats are healthy oils, such as olive oil, that have been linked with a low incidence on cardiovascular disease in people who consume a Mediterranean diet. These types of fats have a tendency to lower LDL cholesterol, without effecting HDL cholesterol blood levels.

Polyunsaturated Fat

Polyunsaturated fats are oils that have a tendency to lower both LDL and HDL cholesterol blood levels. They are healty oils, but some research suggests that our modern diets contain too high a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 polyunsaturated fats. The focus of good fat consumption should be on monunsaturated fats and omega-3 polyunsaturated fats. As a side note, some polyunsaturated fats are more likely to create trans fats when used with high heat cooking methods. Avoid the use of corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, and soybean oil. Better choices are canola oil or olive oil.

Omega-3 Fats

Omega-3 fats are a subtype of polyunsaturated fat distinguished from Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats by the location of the double bonds in the molecule. Again who really cares. What you should care about is the research that suggests that these fats can significantly lower the risk of cardiovascular heart disease and offer many other health benefits.

Which foods contain good fats?

No food only contains a single type of fat, so these foods actually contain a high percentage of the respective type of fat with other assorted fatty acids making up the difference. Here are some good sources of each type of fat:


  • Olive oil
  • Canola oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Avocados
  • Safflower oil
  • Sesame oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Corn oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Fish (the greatest health benefits come from the omega-3 fats found in fish)
  • Nuts
  • Flax seeds
Do your best to include as many sources of good fat in your diet, but remember that just because they are healthier doesn't mean you can discount the number of calories contained in fat. You still need to make sure that you aren't consuming more that the recommended 25-35% of your daily calories from fat sources and, if weight loss is a goal, you must continue to consume fewer calories than you burn each day.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Fat, a necessary nutrient, Part I

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Fat usually gets a bad rap in the diet world, but without fat in our diets we would die. Yes, the typical diet contains too much fat, but some fat is needed for our survival. Dietary fat intake supplies our bodies with essential fatty acids, regulates hormone and cholesterol production, and supplies our bodies with fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K). Fat is also the most dense form of food energy containing over twice the amount of energy per gram as carbohydrates and protein (9 calories per gram vs. 4 calories per gram).


Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that is found in cell walls in the body. Too much of the wrong type of cholesterol causes deposits on arterial walls and can lead to blocked arteries and heart disease. Contrary to popular belief, dietary cholesterol is not a major source of cholesterol in the bloodstream. Most cholesterol is produced by the body as a result of heredity and diet. Saturated fat and trans fatty acids are the major dietary culprits in the body's production of cholesterol. If your cholesterol is high, reduce your intake of saturated fats and trans fats.

Bad Dietary Fats

Bad fats are fats that are said to be saturated. Saturated fats are very orderly at the molecular level and can be tightly packed together. Being tightly packed together makes all saturated fats share a common property...they are all solid at room temperature. Trans fats are fats that were originally unsaturated which undergo an artificial chemical process called hydrogenation. In this process, a liquid oil, usually soybean oil, becomes more shelf-stable and solid at room temperature.

From a health perspective, trans fats are the worst types of fats. They increase LDL cholesterol (the bad stuff) and decrease HDL (the good stuff). On the scale of "unhealthyness" naturally saturated fats come in a close second...they only increase LDL, without decreasing HDL. Here are a few examples of both types of fats:

Trans fats

  • Any Hydrogenated Oil
  • Any Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil
  • Shortening

Saturated Fats

  • Butter
  • Cream
  • Lard
  • Coconut Oil
  • Palm Oil
  • Palm Kernel Oil

Where are most bad fats lurking?

Baked goods make extensive use of trans fats because they require fats that are solid at room temperature to avoid feeling and tasting greasy and fats that are shelf stable for long periods of time. In the past, butter was used, but with the advent of the hydrogenation process, the products can be made cheaper and longer lasting using hydrogenated oils. Many companies are advertising the removal of trans fats from their products (notice how many are baked goods), but they are replacing them with saturated tropical oils, i.e. coconut and palm oil. Jumping from trans fat to a saturated fat is only a very small improvement, so don't think those trans fat free doughnuts are now health foods. Commercially fried foods are also very high in trans and saturated fats. Animal fats are mostly saturated fats, so you should use lower fat cuts of meat and lower fat dairy products, where possible.

Q: Product X claims to have no trans fat, shows 0 grams of trans fat on the Nutrition Facts panel, but contains "Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil" in the list of ingredients. Is it really trans fat free or not?

The FDA allow companies to claim that a product does not contain a substance if said substance is found in amounts smaller than 0.5 g per serving of the product. In the example given, Product X does contain trans fats but less than 0.5 g per serving. Over the course of a day, eating several servings of products that claim to be trans fat free, but contain hydrogented oils, can result in a person consuming several grams of unhealthy trans fats. If you have a history of cholesterol issues, my advice is to avoid products containing hydrogenated oils, even if they claim to be trans fat free.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

National Weight Control Registry

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The National Weight Control Registry is a joint research study conducted by professors at Brown University and the University of Colorado. It has tracked the lifestyle and habits of over 5000 people who have lost at least 30 pounds and successfully kept it off for at least 18 months. The average amount of weight lost by the research participants is 66 pounds and they have kept it off for an average of 5.5 years. The purpose of the study is not to track how much weight is lost, but how did the participants lose the weight and keep it off long-term. Here are some of the results from the study:

98% of Registry participants report that they modified their food intake in some way to lose weight.

Look at it this way, your current weight is the net result of your current food intake and activity levels. If you want to control your weight, you must change something. You can either eat smaller portions (less calories) of the same foods, or you can eat foods with fewer calories (less calorie dense foods), but to make a positive change your food intake "must be modified in some way".

94% increased their physical activity, with the most frequently reported form of activity being walking.
90% exercise, on average, about 1 hour per day.

The often heard recommendation from the American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association and the CDC is 30 minutes of moderate exercise, most days of the week. This is to improve health, but other studies have shown that more is required to lose weight and maintain a lower weight. If these successful weight losers are any indication, a lot more than the "health" recommendation is needed for weight loss.

78% eat breakfast every day.

Skipping any meal, especially breakfast is a bad idea. You will eat even more calories than are saved by not eating the meal at some later time. You can't starve you body into weight loss submission.

75% weigh them self at least once a week.

The rationale behind this is simple...you need feedback to know where you stand. Due to food intake, dehydration, etc. weighing daily can result in +/- 3 pounds of weight difference. This is normal. A sustained increase of a pound or two over a 1-2 week period is what you are looking for to indicate a weight gain. If you see this, then tighten up your eating and exercise more to get a grip on the gain before it gets worse. It's much easier to lose 1 or 2 pounds than 10, 15, or more.

62% watch less than 10 hours of TV per week.

The national average is over 28 hours per week of television watching. If you "don't have time" to exercise and you are watching 4 hours a night of television, you need to reconsider your priorities and turn off the TV and get moving.

42% of the sample reported that maintaining their weight loss was less difficult than losing weight.

Making the lifestyle changes necessary to lose weight is much more difficult than continuing those habits once you've incorporated. Another aspect of this is that losing weight requires a calorie deficit...you eat less than you need/want. Maintaining your weight just requires that you not overeat.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Eat more to lose weight

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"Ok, time to get Scott a prescription for some crazy pills. Now I know, I didn't just read that I need to eat more to lose weight!"

Actually that is not a typo. You could be eating too little food to lose weight. Obviously, this doesn't apply to everyone but there are some people who will read this who, believe it or not, are not eating enough to lose weight. You see our bodies are very good at keeping us alive. In fact, looking good in a swimsuit for the summer doesn't even come into play from a biological standpoint. Survival is paramount. Most people who go on a diet severely restrict the amount of food that they eat so that they can lose weight as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, that only works for a very short period of time. Within a couple of weeks your body starts to react to keep you alive (remember, survival trumps swimsuit season) by reducing your metabolism to closer match your food intake. Once this begins to happen you are no longer consuming a calorie deficit and you stop losing weight. Now what? Typically people get discouraged at this point and either stop the diet or blame themselves for not "wanting it bad enough" and reduce calories even more, eating even less, reducing metabolism even more. Eventually survival wins out and the diet goes out the door and normal eating habits return, usually with a vengeance. Now people consume even more calories than before, essentially kicking the horse when its down. The new, lower metabolism has them eating an enormous caloric surplus. The pounds come back...and thanks to your body's survival mechanisms...they bring friends. Don't fight your body...you won't win.

How do you know if you need to eat more?

If you aren't watching what you eat and how much, more than likely you are not eating too little. This isn't the magic bullet you've been waiting for that allows you to eat whatever you want and lose weight. You should click on the link at the bottom of the page and fill out the form to determine your maintenance level of calories. If you log your food for a day and find that you are eating far below that number of calories, then you simply need to eat more. You should never eat less than your maintenance level of calories minus 500 to maintain long-term fat loss. For women, 1200 calories is the lowest you should go. Men should not go lower than 1500 calories. If your maintenance level of calories minus 500 dips below these levels, the answer is not eating less, but exercising more to offset your sedentary lifestyle.

How do I stop the downward spiral?

The short answer is to eat more. My suggestion is to go for 3 weeks eating at your maintenance calorie level. Click on the link at the bottom of the page to find out how many calories per day you require to maintain your weight. The bad news is that you will gain weight...maybe a couple of pounds, but that is what it takes to repair and increase your metabolism. In the long run, you will easily lose the gained weight and more. After the 3 weeks is over, then drop your calories down to no lower than maintenance minus 500, but no lower than 1200 calories for women and no lower than 1500 calories for men. If you aren't doing any strength training, start doing it. Its primary benefit to someone trying to lose weight is to maintain muscle mass and metabolism and make sure that the weight being lost is really fat.

How many calories do you need each day to maintain your weight?

Click here to find out: http://www.yeraze.com/scripts/calories.php

Simply fill out the form and click the 'Calculate' button. On the result page, use the chart at the bottom of the page to determine your activity level and calories needed per day. Don't kid yourself, most people fall into the 'Sedentary' category.

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