Tag Archives: food

The Cold Season Diet – Foods that Strengthen Your Immune System

Guest Writer: Timi Gustafson, RD

It is the time of the year again when many of us get the sniffles, wondering when there will be a cure for the common cold at last. Of course, not everybody will fall sick. Some people seem to remain unscathed no matter what, while others succumb as soon as the temperatures drop. It’s a mystery how a chosen few can handle the germ assault so much better than the rest of us. These folks must have an extraordinarily robust immune system that protects them like an invisible shield. But were they born this way or did they acquire their immunity over time. And if so, how?

'Walmart's Healthier Foods Annoucement in D.C.' photo (c) 2009, Walmart - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Humans have three types of immunity: “Innate,” “adaptive” and “passive.” We all are equipped with “innate” or “natural” immunity at birth. It is our first line of defense against the countless health hazards we become exposed to the moment we begin to breath. We also have external barriers, like our skin and the membranes that line the nose, throat and gastrointestinal tract. If any of these outer defense walls break down and an opening occurs, e.g. through an abrasion or cut, immune cells keep pathogens from invading while the wound heals.

By contrast, “adaptive” immunity is a defense mechanism we acquire as we encounter various diseases or become intentionally immunized through vaccinations. It is a process that continues over the duration of our lifetime.

“Passive” immunity only lasts for a limited period. For instance, we receive certain antibodies as infants from breast milk, protecting us initially from the infectious diseases our mother carries anti-bodies against. But that kind of protection is only temporary.

As we get older, our immune system should grow increasingly stronger and more efficient, simply because it recognizes many germs from past encounters and eliminates these faster. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Immunity disorders and allergies can severely diminish our natural defenses. But if it functions properly, the immune system is a magnificent asset without which we would not survive for long.

Fortunately, we have also means to strengthen the immune system’s capacity. Most people may think in terms of vaccinations. However, one of the most effective ways to boost the immune system is through a healthy, balanced diet. Experts believe that eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables is probably the single best thing one can do to support the immune system and thereby ward off many infections.

Some of the most important nutritional benefits we can get come from antioxidants. Antioxidants are vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that help to protect cells in the body from damages caused by so-called “free radicals.” These are highly unstable organic molecules, mostly generated by exposure to toxins, which can adversely affect cells and tissues and thereby contribute to diseases and aging. They can also impact the immune system and interfere with its functions. Antioxidants are believed to prevent these free radicals from doing their harmful work. Including lots of rich sources of antioxidants in one’s diet is therefore highly recommended as a preventive measure against colds and other infections.

Certain foods contain higher levels of antioxidants than others. Look for fruits and vegetables that are high in beta-carotene and other carotenoids. You can easily recognize them by their bright colors, like orange, purple, red and yellow. Apricots, cantaloupes, mangoes, nectarines, peaches, grapefruit, tangerines and watermelons are all fruits rich in beta-carotene. So are vegetables like asparagus, beets, broccoli, carrots, bell peppers, kale, collard greens, squash, spinach, sweet potatoes and tomatoes.

You may want to include good sources of essential vitamins and minerals as well. Vitamins A, C, E and the mineral selenium (all antioxidants), B-complex vitamins, iron and zinc are especially beneficial for the immune system. Vitamin C and E are present in many produce items and are readily available for most of the year. Vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, citrus fruits and berries are loaded with them. Foods that can be found in colder climates during the fall and winter season are prunes, apples, raisins, plums, grapes as well as onions, eggplants, beans, squash, pumpkins and sweet potatoes. The richest Vitamin E sources are wheat, nuts, seeds and also certain fruits and vegetables.

All these foods contain many more varieties of nutrients that work together in support of the immune system and have other health benefits too. Some have important anti-inflammatory properties, which can be used for the treatment of allergies and other inflammations.

With regards to their nutritional value, natural sources of antioxidants are preferable to vitamin supplements. However, in order to avoid deficiencies, I do recommend a daily multivitamin supplement, at least during the cold season. Supplements are never to be considered a substitute for real food, but they can serve as useful additives, especially when your diet is less than balanced. However, I do not advise taking specific immune boosting supplements or medications, unless prescribed by a doctor for therapeutic purposes. The reason is that some vitamins (like A and E) are not as easily eliminated as others (e.g. vitamin C) and may accumulate to the point where they become toxic.

Last, but not least, it needs to be said that good nutrition alone will not guarantee the immune system to function at top level. Stress management and sleep hygiene are also part of the equation. If you are too run down from work or sleep deprivation, the best food in the world will not prevent you from having to pay the price eventually. But with all (or most) of your health needs met, you should make it through the coming winter just fine. Perhaps, this time you will be among the chosen few who stay above the fray, no matter what.

Timi Gustafson RD, LDN. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Food Storage: When in Doubt, Throw it Out

There are 70 to 80 million people each year in the United States who get food poisoning, resulting in more than 100,000 hospitalizations and numerous deaths. Only 20 percent are attributed to restaurants and food workers.

Many cases of food poisoning are somewhat self-inflicted by poor handling and storage of food in the home. Proper food handling and storage is critical to keeping your family safe.

Handling your food properly as soon as it’s purchased means prompt and proper storage until it is ready for consumption. Raw meat products are a common source of food poisoning, so it’s important to avoid cross contamination with other products.

Effective refrigerator temperature is 40 degrees and freezers should be at zero degrees to ensure safe storage. Carefully store meats in clean, leak-proof bags, double wrapped tightly with suitable freezer wrap or plastic. Storing on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator will avoid possible dripping on other foods.

Fresh meats or fish should be consumed within one to three days. Five days can still be satisfactory for some whole products such as a roast or chops. On average, frozen meat products should be consumed within six months, and even sooner for products like ground beef. Some whole roasts can be safely frozen for up to 10-12 months. Even if safe, this pushes the limits of food product integrity. Monitor the temperatures in your refrigerator and freezer to ensure no temperature fluctuations are occurring due to mechanical malfunctions or weather conditions.

Make sure to check “use-by” or “sell-by” dates on food packages. Remember, these dates do not apply once the package is open even if restored properly. Best-if-used-by dates provide the most reliable information. They take into account normal handling and use of the product.

Any package that is new or leftover can get lost in the refrigerator. You cannot safely judge a food product by the appearance, smell or taste. If in doubt, throw it out! It is not worth the risk of consuming tainted food.

Condiments often remain open in the refrigerator for long periods and are easily forgotten. Storage of condiments on the door is a suitable location in the refrigerator by design. Even the few acidic condiments that may be safe for longer storage will lose integrity of quality and taste; they still should be replaced after two months.

Fresh eggs should always be stored in a protective carton in a more consistently cool area. Do not store on the door where they are subject to temperature fluctuations and breakage.

Fresh produce should be kept in perforated bags that allow air circulation and evaporation of moisture. Do not wash them before storage, the moisture will speed decay and decrease shelf life dramatically.

Except for selected items like a hard-aged salami or cheese that contain natural mold that can be trimmed or even safely consumed, moldy or questionably appearing products should be discarded.

Cleaning the refrigerator/freezer more regularly is important to avoid excess build up of bacteria. Clean spills as soon as they occur with a weak cleaning solution that will sanitize. Bananas, potatoes and onions should be stored in a cool dry place, not refrigerated.

Store leftovers of any kind in a clean, airtight container. Food you prepare should be refrigerated within two hours after cooking to avoid spoilage and development of excess bacteria. Repeatedly warming and cooling leftovers can allow bacteria levels to get dangerously high.

To avoid the possibility of food poisoning at home, remember the golden rule – when it doubt, throw it out!

Dr. Bruce Kaler

Debunking 3 Weight Management Myths

Overweight? You have lots of company. It is one of the greatest public health issues of the last 20 years. Let’s discuss a few myths, as well as a few ideas.

Myth: Eat three meals a day.
Not so! Three meals a day is a modern concept. Historically there never was enough food for the average person to eat three meals a day. In many parts of the world, that is still true. If you eat three “reasonable” meals a day, you will be overweight.

Chinese Food Macro 12-6-08 7photo © 2008 Steven Depolo | more info (via: Wylio)

Myth: The kind of food you eat dramatically affects your weight.
That also is more myth than science. Your body needs somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 calories per day. If you take in more calories, you gain weight; taking in less means you lose weight. If you eat 4,000 calories of carrots per day, you will gain weight (and turn orange – I’m not kidding). The body happily converts protein, carbohydrates and fat in your diet to whatever the body needs. Carbohydrates are not the great Satan, nor are fats. Fats do happen to be twice as calorie-rich per weight as everything else. So you can only eat half as much fat. On that thought, it really is too bad that the body stores extra calories as fat (4,100 calories per pound). If it stored excess as carbohydrate or protein, it would only take 1,800 calories to burn a pound.

What is a calorie anyway? The calorie is a certain amount of energy that is contained in food. It can be thought of as “stored work.” You use it when you exercise or to keep your heart beating. Calories are good stuff, in moderation.

Myth: Exercise absolves you of food sin.
Unfortunately, there is no absolution. You need to exercise, and it is one of the most important health habits you can have. Exercise will burn 200-500 calories per session. That will help you lose weight or keep you trim. Keep in mind that 200-500 calories isn’t even a candy bar’s worth of calories. So exercise alone won’t do the job.

Now I would like to suggest the concept of dining for enjoyment vs. for fuel. I define fuel as calories I take in only to keep going. These are not tasted, savored or enjoyed. They are simply thrown down my throat hastily. Here is the important thing, in my opinion: if I am not going to savor and enjoy a meal, I might as well throw down something good for me (a protein or yogurt drink). If I have time to sit down and really enjoy a meal, I might as well eat something tasty, even if it’s not that great for me.

So get some exercise and don’t throw down bad food without enjoying it. If you are trim, it will help you stay that way, and if not, you will make steadily progress toward a lesser you.

Stay well,

Dr. B

Food Allergies at a Glance

The topic of food allergies is murky and confusing. Many reactions reported as allergy to a food product are really mere intolerance, over-eating or other factors. True food allergies are thought to occur in 8 percent of children under age 5 and only 3 to 4 percent of adults. The frequency of allergies does not vary much around the world, while both genders are equally affected.

True food allergies can cause reactions that differ from mild digestive issues, rash, hives or difficulty breathing. Anaphylaxis is the most severe form of allergic reaction, with onset within 20 minutes of ingestion that progresses rapidly, resulting in hives, shortness of breath, rapid pulse and even death if not immediately treated. Although estimates of life-threatening reactions vary widely, it comprises only a small number of the overall allergic reactions to food. True food allergies usually occur within 2 hours or less after ingesting the food. Onset of swelling or tingling around the throat, lips, face or hives and itching are early signs. It can progress to dizziness, nausea, vomiting or difficulty breathing. Which symptoms and how rapidly it progresses may be different in one person to the next.

Food intolerance is only sensitivity to a food that is driven by a different physiologic mechanism that causes much milder symptoms and does not lead to more severe reactions. A good example of this is lactose intolerance, or sensitivity to milk and dairy products. Due to an enzyme deficiency, it often results in abdominal gas, discomfort, cramping and diarrhea. It is a lot more common and vastly different than a true food allergy.

FOOD by Wolfgang Wildnerphoto © 2011 Wolfgang Wildner | more info (via: Wylio)

The most common food allergies are eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts (i.e. walnuts, pecans) wheat, and shellfish (shrimp, lobster, crab, clams). Regular fish and chocolate are much less common allergens than anecdotes suggest.

Food intolerance can be confused with an allergy. Only a small amount of a food can trigger a severe allergic reaction. Food intolerance, food poisoning, stress, a virus, medications, food additives (preservatives, coloring) can all produce similar but milder symptoms, particularly intestinal problems. So it can be confusing at times to ascertain what the origin of the reaction may be.

A family history of food allergies, asthma or eczema increases the risk of true food allergies. Allergic individuals may cross react between certain allergens. Some of those sensitivities can extend between dissimilar items that may not be obvious. Consulting your healthcare provider, an exam and possible testing may be able to provide peace of mind, appropriate treatment and identify what to avoid in the future.

The most important aspect of managing food allergies is avoidance. Unfortunately there is no specific treatment. Antihistamines are still the first line of defense in both children and adults at the onset of a food allergy. If severe, prompt medical attention may be needed. Food allergies in children often change over time. The onset is most common in the first few years of life but can occur at any age. Allergies do get better in some children as they get older. Research shows there is no relationship between allergies and when new foods are introduced after 6 months of age.

Variation in personal experience seems to be the rule. Family and personal history of allergies are stronger predictors of future course. The severity of a past reaction cannot predict the severity of a future reaction.

When in doubt about food sensitivities or allergies, simply avoid it! Consult your healthcare provider to help with any confusion.

– Dr. Bruce Kaler

Cholesterol – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I have recently been concerned by the eternal question: should I eat only the top or only the bottom of a slice of pizza? Perhaps I need to invest in a new Zen calendar, just live for the moment and eat the darn pie. This of course is a sideways approach to a quick and dirty discussion of good and bad cholesterol.

Rainbow Pizzaphoto © 2008 Food Recipes | more info (via: Wylio)

What is cholesterol anyway?

Cholesterol is a fat that is in the chemical class called a sterol (kind of sounds like steroid, doesn’t it?). In fact steroids and vitamins are made from cholesterol. Cholesterol occurs naturally in plants and animals. You actually make it in your body. Cholesterol is also an essential part of your cell membranes. Cells, you might remember, are your little engines of life. You won’t go far without them. So cholesterol is a good thing in many ways. Don’t hear that very often, do you?

But, like so many other thing in life, excess leads to trouble – like the glass of red wine versus the whole bottle phenomenon. A little cholesterol goes a long way.

The trouble occurs in the handling and transport of cholesterol in your body. The liver is the main source of cholesterol production. The intestines absorb dietary cholesterol. Cholesterol is a fat, and fats don’t mix well with blood (blood is water based).

Your body makes lipoproteins which function like a soap to transport cholesterol. Soaps dissolve oil in water. For the record, Tide gets the grease out by surrounding the grease particle with molecules that dissolve in water on one end, and in oil/fat on the other end? The grease is suspended in the water in kind of a porcupine looking thing, with the soap acting like quills – how’s this for a mental picture.

These cholesterol containing particles (porcupines) are called lipoproteins, and come in several flavors, some more tasty than others. Low Density Lipoproteins (LDLs) are the bad guys. They are low density because they have more cholesterol and less protein. These have been associated with heart disease, stroke, and any manner of metabolic mayhem. They float around and are a large part of the plaques that form in arteries – the higher the LDLs, the worse the risk. LDLs are increased by dietary sources such as cheese, egg yolks, and meats like beef, pork and chicken, even shrimp. They are decreased by reducing animal fats in the diet and some medications.

HDLs are the good guys – you want lots of them. Their formal name is High Density Lipoprotein. They have a higher protein to cholesterol percentage, making them dense. They function to gather cholesterol from areas where it is problematic (in the wall of blood vessels) and transport it back centrally for disposal.

The medical community has increasingly seen HDLs as one of the most important factors in a healthy lifestyle. Many things raise the HDL levels. Among them are exercise, weight loss, moderate alcohol intake, a low-fat diet, fish oil supplements and quitting smoking. Medications can also be used to raise HDLs.

To tie up a few loose ends:

Trans fats are not naturally occurring. They are made in factories as a food additive and used in the fast food and pastry industry. Eating trans fats is a pretty bad idea as a little of these fats really raises the bad cholesterol.
• Saturated fats (animal fats) also raise cholesterol.
Poly unsaturated fats do the opposite – they lower cholesterol.

The answer to my original question about pizza (if you have been holding your breath) is of course a choice.

If you believe in the Atkins diet, eat the top of the pizza (protein and fat) and throw away the crust (carbohydrate). If you think cholesterol is more worrisome than weight, eat the crust and sauce (for the lycopene) and throw away the top.

My plan is to live in the moment and eat the very occasional whole pie with a glass of red wine – and exercise tomorrow.

Take care,

Dr. B

Radiation and Food – Are You What You Eat?

Just when we thought the Japanese nuclear disaster could get no worse, they announce the radioactive contamination of produce, milk and water. Is it not bad enough already?

There has indeed been some low level radioactive contamination of locally produced food, milk and water in Japan. The major radioactive isotopes involved are identified as Iodine 131 (I 131) and Caesium 137 (C 137).

First, how could such a thing happen? There has been persistent, low-level leakage of the products of nuclear fission since the disaster started. This could be from emergency venting of the reactors to avoid rupture or due to fire involving waste fuel rods. Conceivably, there might even be damage to the reactors. These are heavy elements, and they are unlikely to go very far from the nuclear plant.

Unlike Chernobyl, the amount of release has been quite small, and there have not been any raging fires to blow these things up into the stratosphere. Nevertheless, we have a bit of measurable radiation in water, spinach and milk very close to the plant.

cute little milkphoto © 2006 hobvias sudoneighm | more info (via: Wylio)

I-131 is the better known of the two radionucletides. It is a radioactive form of the element iodine. We buy iodinated salt to get the small amount of iodine we need to make thyroid hormone. Making thyroid hormone is basically the only use your body has for iodine. If there is I-131 in the environment, and you happen to eat food contaminated with it, it will head straight to the thyroid gland (the body thinks it is normal iodine). While the thyroid gland is busy making thyroid hormone out of it, it is quietly irradiating your thyroid. This can cause some genetic damage, and many years later it is possible this could lead to thyroid cancer. For the record: thyroid cancer is one of the most curable cancers out there.

The problem with I-131 is what doctors call “self limiting.” The half life of I-131 is only 8 days. That means 50% remains 8 days from now and 25% 16 days from now. By 5 half lives (40 days), the stuff is practically gone.

No discussion of I-131 is complete without discussing KI (potassium iodide) – the wonder pill. For all you hear about this stuff, it should be $100 a pill and a government secret. Alas, it’s just an easily-made type of iodine. If you are on supplemental iodine, the thyroid will be filled up and won’t hold on to any I-131 it comes across, which is helpful only when you are around I-131 (which we’re not).

Caesium 137 is another radioactive isotope that is in the area of the reactors. This is a much more troublesome substance. If being radioactive is not enough, it is also chemically poisonous, water soluble and tends to settle in bones. C137 has a half life of 30 years, so it takes 150 years (5 half lives) for the radiation to be manageable. No one is allowed near Chernobyl because of still highly radioactive Caesium 137 in the soil.

If C-137 gets into your body, the biologic half life is 70 days, rather than 30 years. So you will be effectively rid of it in just about one year (350 days). That’s at least one year too long for most people.

Food can get contaminated by radioactive dust falling on spinach leaves. Radioactive dust can contaminate grass and be eaten by dairy cows, producing radioactive milk. Now before we give ourselves osteoporosis from avoiding milk and anemia from avoiding spinach, we need too remember two things: 1) the damaged reactors are in Japan, not California, and 2) the radioactive contamination is so minor, there is no danger.

How much milk from next to the Japanese reactor do you think gets exported to the United States? Zero. Same goes for spinach. These are locally grown products that are consumed locally, and not even there these days. Even if the radiation was not in question, it would cost a ridiculous amount to fly milk and spinach around the world.

But you can bet that you are protected by more than just distance and the law of supply and demand. Export of Japanese agricultural products, few that they are, are carefully inspected for the least trace of radiation before being accepted in this country.

Radiation identified in the food chain is certainly dramatic news. It was a predictable and expected consequence of the Japanese nuclear reactor trouble. Thankfully, we are safely on the opposite side of the planet.

Take care,

Dr. B