Monday, December 29, 2008

What type of oatmeal is healthiest?

Q: Why have I heard that rolled oats are healthier than quick oatmeal packets?

A: As you can see, there are different types of oat products out there on the market. The two kinds that you will most likely find on your supermarket shelf are “steel-cut” oats and different varieties of “rolled” oats.

Steel-cut oats (my personal favorite) are the least processed of the two varieties and so retain the greatest amount of nutrients—especially the cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber found in oats, namely beta-glucan. Because steel-cut oats are pretty much “right off the farm,” they do take much longer to cook than the rolled type, but it is well worth the extra time and effort for their superior flavor, texture and nutrient composition.

Rolled oats are what most Americans know as oatmeal and are often sold in familiar round cardboard containers. These oats have been steamed, dried, sliced and then flattened, producing the flat oatmeal shape that we have become accustomed to. There are actually three types of rolled oats: (1) old-fashioned, (2) quick-cooking, and (3) instant. The instant variety is the most processed of the three and has already been precooked—making it convenient to cook but unfortunately mushy in texture. In addition, the instant variety frequently has added sweeteners, salt and other flavorings. Your best bet is to choose the least processed type of oats such as the steel-cut or the old-fashioned varieties. If you need the time-saving convenience of instant, go for the plain instant packets and add your own sweetener—and also be sure to add a couple tablespoons of oat bran (the concentrated form of beta-glucan, much of which has been lost in the instant varieties).

Monday, December 22, 2008

Are the "healthy" menus at fast-food places really healthy?

Q: Are the "healthy" menus at fast-food places really healthy?

A: In our society, everything is fast, fast, fast, including our food. The problem is, how does one follow government-advocated healthy eating guidelines recommending that we consume lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nonfat (or 1%) dairy products, lean protein and healthy fats (like olive oil, avocado and nuts) when we’re on the go?
Let’s face it, finding healthy food is tough outside of your own kitchen.

In answer to your question, surprisingly some of the “healthy” menu choices now offered at fast-food restaurants are actually much healthier than their classical menu choices, though clearly not what I would call “health food.” The best advice for navigating the fast-food maze and for a fast food to be truly healthy is that it has to be low in saturated fat, cholesterol and trans fat free. It also cannot be swimming in sodium or sugar and should not provide a ridiculous amount of calories (a good goal is to keep under 500 calories for a full meal).

I decided to check out the McDonald’s Web site ( ) to see if I could concoct a “healthy lunch.” I found the following nutrition information for their Premium Asian Salad with Grilled Chicken: 320 calories, 9 grams fat (3 grams of those are saturated) and 960 mg sodium. Add in a packet of Newman’s Own Low Fat Balsamic Vinaigrette (40 calories, 3 grams fat and 730 mg sodium), a sugar-free iced tea and a fruit ’n’ yogurt parfait (160 calories, 2 grams fat and 85 mg sodium) and you can squeak out a somewhat healthy lunch for a grand total of 520 calories, 14 grams fat and a whopping 1,775 mg sodium (you should keep your total daily sodium intake under 2,300 mg/day). Not ideal, but in a pinch . . .

Monday, December 15, 2008

What's a good substitute for butter in Holiday recipes?

Q: Many of my holiday recipes call for butter. What's a good substitute?

A: I like to use the tub margarines with added plant sterols such as Benecol or Promise Take Control. I also like the “light” versions that give you all the flavor with half the calories. These margarines are a nice substitute for butter not only because they have only a fraction of the artery-clogging saturated fat, and are trans fat free, but also because they give you a dose of plant sterols—the natural plant derivative that is safe and effective for lowering your “bad” LDL cholesterol. Here is a mashed potato recipe for a delicious and truly heart-healthy holiday side dish taken from my book, Cholesterol DOWN:

Mashed Potatoes with Chick Peas (Garbanzo Beans)
Yield: 6 servings (serving size: approximately 1 cup)

2 pounds baking potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks

1 can (15.5 ounces) chick peas, rinsed and drained

1 cup light soy milk

½ cup reduced sodium chicken broth

¼ cup Promise Take Control Light Margarine

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper

Commercial gravy, optional

Place potatoes in a large saucepan, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes or until tender. Drain and return potatoes to pan. Add in chick peas and mash using a potato masher. Add in soy milk, chicken broth, margarine and seasonings, and stir. Cook an additional 2 minutes until heated, stirring constantly. Serve warm. Top with commercial gravy if desired.

Nutritional Information Per Serving (approximately 1 cup):
Calories: 255, Fat: 5 g, Cholesterol: 0 mg, Sodium: 751 mg,
Carbohydrates: 46 g, Dietary Fiber: 5 g, Sugars: 3 g, Protein: 7 g

Recipe from: Cholesterol DOWN: 10 Simple Steps to Lower Your Cholesterol in 4 Weeks—Without Prescription Drugs by Janet Bond Brill, Ph.D., R.D., LDN.
Published by Three Rivers Press, December 2006; $13.95US/$17.95CAN; 978-0-307-33911-9.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Is exercising in the cold dangerous?

Q: Do physical activities like snowshoeing or cross-country skiing in very cold temperatures have any negative effect on my body?

A: I love your question, because even though I live in a tropical climate, I have to say that snowshoeing is probably my favorite aerobic exercise! I try to travel to the high country once a year to get my fix of cold weather exercise. Strap on a pair of comfy snowshoe boots (or even a good-quality leather boot and warm, insulating socks that will work just as well), attach them to your snowshoes, throw on a few layers of clothes, gloves and a hat, and you’re off.

To me, nothing compares to hiking along snowy paths, and all the while—as your heart is pumping—taking in the magnificence of the majestic snowcapped mountains and basking in the quiet solitude of the snowy forest. As far as I’m concerned, it simply doesn’t get better than that for exercise for both the mind and the body.

Exercising in very cold temperatures is a safe and really fun way to stay physically fit, as long as you be sure to take some precautions:

Check with your doctor first before beginning any exercise program.
Layer up for cold weather and make sure to cover those extremities (head and hands). Wearing a “neck gator” to cover your nose and mouth can be tremendously helpful in frigid conditions.

Drink, drink, and drink before, during and after your workout; even if you don’t feel thirsty, you need to drink to stay hydrated.

Bring a snack because you really work up an appetite exercising in the great outdoors!

Make sure someone knows of your whereabouts before you embark on your outing—either the ranger who sold you the day pass or a friend or family member. I suggest carrying a cell phone for use as an emergency contact (although reception in the backcountry can be iffy).

To improve safety (prevent hypothermia and frostbite) and comfort, I suggest that you go to the American College of Sports Medicine website and review their recommendations for how to exercise safely in cold weather.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Is coffee a good energy boost for a workout?

Q: I see people at my gym drinking coffee before they work out. Is this a good energy boost for a workout?

A: Oh, that morning cup of Joe . . . Americans just can’t seem to get enough of the most popular behavior-altering drug in this country, caffeine. Is it smart to down a cup or two of coffee before you work out or is it better to refrain until after you get your exercise in?

Caffeine is the most widely used ergogenic aid (a substance that can purportedly enhance sports performance) and has been scientifically proven to be a highly effective sports aid. Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant that can help you perform better because it acts to increase alertness as well as lower your perception of effort during exercise—so you can exercise harder and it won’t feel as difficult. The science has shown that caffeine is most valuable for endurance-type athletes involved in sports such as cycling and long-distance running. Caffeine has been shown to increase the amount of fat floating in the bloodstream of endurance athletes, which would theoretically improve endurance performance by helping to spare muscle glycogen. When muscle glycogen runs low, endurance athletes need to slow their pace, so an ergogenic aid that enables athletes to “spare” the glycogen in favor of using the fat for fuel would be highly beneficial and potentially delay fatigue.

If you do decide to drink a cup of coffee before exercising, there are a few caveats. Caffeine is a diuretic, so if you choose to consume it before exercising in a hot, humid environment, be sure to drink extra fluids to compensate. Furthermore, many people are caffeine sensitive and can have negative side effects from consuming caffeine, such as nervousness, upset stomach and a rapid heart rate. If you are caffeine sensitive, I would suggest that you abstain.