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If you have a sweet tooth or find it difficult to keep yourself from overeating sweet foods, here’s something that could be useful.

Sweet Defeat is a product that claims to lessen your desire—and therefore your consumption—of sweets. Does it work? I reviewed the science behind this interesting product and also put it to the test—and I have a full report for you.

The active ingredient in Sweet Defeat is an herb called gymnema silvestre. It’s been used for centuries in traditional medicine as a treatment for diabetes. In fact, the Hindi name for this herb translates to "destroyer of sugar."

Modern pharmacological research seems to support this traditional wisdom. Compounds extracted from gymnema have been shown to reduce the absorption of sugar from the intestinal tract and boost insulin production, all of which could help lower blood sugar. Animal testing confirms that gymnema reduces blood glucose levels. 

Lab rats given gymnema extract also eat less and lose weight. As a result, you’ll also find lots of weight loss supplements containing gymnema. Unfortunately, the research on humans is all but non-existent. And, as we know all too well, what works for lab rats does not always work for humans. I wouldn’t waste your money on gymnema-based supplements for weight loss.

The idea is that if sweet stuff doesn’t taste good, you won’t eat it.

But gymnema has another interesting property—one that you can test yourself. It binds to the taste receptors on your tongue that perceive sweetness. As a result, it makes sweet things taste a lot less sweet. Sweet Defeat lozenges coat your tongue with gymnemic acid, rendering you temporarily unable to taste sweetness. The idea is that if sweet stuff doesn’t taste good, you won’t eat it.

A small placebo-controlled trial (in humans!) seems to bear this out. The lucky subjects in this study were allowed to select their favorite type of candy and eat a piece of it. After they enjoyed their candy, some were given a gymnemic acid lozenge and others were given a placebo lozenge. Then, they were all offered more of their favorite candy. Those who got the active lozenge consumed 44% less candy than those who got the placebo.

I did my own n-of-1 experiment and here's what I experienced. After lunch one day, I unwrapped a Sweet Defeat lozenge and popped it in my mouth. It was slightly sweet and pleasantly minty but as it dissolved on my tongue, the strangest thing happened. As the gymnemic acid interacted with the taste receptors on the surface of my tongue, the taste of the lozenge changed. It was like watching a color photograph fade to black and white. The sweetness diminished until the lozenge had no flavor whatsoever.

Then, to test the effect, I tried eating a few raisins and found them weirdly tasteless. It’s very strange to experience the texture of foods like raisins without the sweetness! I’ve always thought that the chewiness of raisins was one of the things I liked about them. But without the reward of the sweet taste, raisins had very little appeal. It was like chewing on rubber bands. I had no desire to continue eating them. The lozenge did not affect my ability to taste other flavors. I could still taste (and enjoy) the pleasant combination of bitterness and creaminess of my unsweetened iced coffee with milk, for example. But soda (or diet soda, for that matter) tasted like slightly sour club soda.

Based on my own experience, the results of the study are not at all surprising. If a treat doesn’t taste particularly good, you’re less likely to continue eating it. But there was another intriguing finding in this study.

Compared with the placebo group, those who used the active lozenges subsequently ate less candy. But they were also more likely to decide they didn’t want another piece of candy—even before thy had experienced the disappointingly-altered taste. It seems that the inability to perceive sweetness doesn’t just make it harder to enjoy a treat. It makes you less interested in having it. It’s almost as if the part of your brain that wants something sweet can already tell that this sensation is not available.

Having a few bites and then popping a lozenge would definitely make it a lot easier to stop at just a few bites.

After finishing the lozenge, sweets weren’t enjoyable or appealing to me. But, in the interests of science, I tried another raisin every 15 minutes or so just to see how long it would be before they started tasting like raisins again. In my case, the effect of the lozenge lasted about 60 minutes.

I certainly wouldn’t use these lozenges as my one and only strategy for reducing sugar intake. I still strongly suggest limiting the amount of sweet foods and beverages in your home, car, and (to the extent that you can control it) in your workplace. Out of sight, out of mind. I also don’t think that a product like this replaces the benefits of mindful eating and enjoyment. And I certainly wouldn’t recommend this as a way to cope with binge eating.

But I can see a couple of situations in which a product like this could be useful. You might intend to enjoy just a few bites of a special dessert. But, as many of you know all too well, a small taste of something sweet can bring on a powerful desire for more. Having a few bites and then popping a lozenge would definitely make it a lot easier to stop at just a few bites. But be sure to use that 60-minute window to put some distance (mentally and physically) between you and the remainder.

You might also try one of these when a random craving for something sweet strikes. It might reduce the intensity of the craving. Even if it doesn’t, it will take your tongue out of the game for long enough for that craving to pass. That’s the thing about cravings. They tend to be short-lived. If you are actually hungry, have a nourishing but non-sweet meal or snack. If you’re not really hungry, use that 60 minutes to get yourself deeply engrossed in another engaging and rewarding activity.  

Although I don’t think Sweet Defeat lozenges are the solution to overeating or obesity, perhaps they can make it a little easier to get out of bad habits and establish healthier behavior patterns.

Have you tried Sweet Defeat lozenges for sugar cravings? I’d love to hear what you’ve experienced. Questions about today’s article? Post them below or come join the discussion on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page.

Image of gymnema sylvestre © Shutterstock

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For decades we’ve been hearing about the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. Drinking a lot of alcohol is obviously not good for you. But some analyses show that people who drink a little alcohol seem to live longer and be healthier than those who don’t drink at all.

The Correlation Between Alcohol and Longevity

There are several possible explanations for this. The correlation between moderate alcohol consumption and longevity might have nothing to do with alcohol. It could be that people who drink moderately tend to have healthier diets and lifestyles than those who don’t drink at all. The higher death rate among teetotalers could simply reflect that people who are in poor health (and therefore more likely to die younger) are also less likely to drink.

Another possibility is that small amounts of alcohol might have beneficial effects on the body. For example, alcohol reduces the tendency of blood to form clots, which might reduce the risk of stroke. 

As a society, we seem to have latched onto this idea that small amounts of alcohol are actually beneficial. This perception is helped along by the alcohol industry, which funds research designed to show that drinking is both safe and beneficial. Moderate alcohol consumption is often listed as a feature of healthy dietary patterns, such as the vaunted Mediterranean Diet.

But have we just been telling ourselves what we want to hear?

A new meta-analysis, comparing drinking patterns and life expectancy of more than half a million people from 19 different countries, finds that anything over 5 drinks a week is linked with shorter life expectancy and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

What Is "Moderate" Drinking?

The definition of "moderate" alcohol consumption differs from country to country, suggesting that cultural norms and attitudes about alcohol may play at least as much a role as actual data. Here in the U.S., for example, we define moderate consumption as one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. Sweden sets the bar lower, France quite a bit higher. According to this latest analysis, however, all of these recommended limits could still put you at increased risk.

The only way to reduce your risk of alcohol-related harm to zero is to reduce your consumption to zero. But remember that risk is merely an expression of statistical probability. It does not predict the future. Some people who don’t drink at all will die younger than some people who drink way too much. The real question that each of us needs to answer is whether the benefits of drinking alcohol outweigh the risks.

Let's be clear: We don’t need to drink alcohol to keep our hearts healthy. Foods like ginger, garlic, and oily fish have the same or better blood-thinning effects as alcohol. And you can get all of the beneficial antioxidants and polyphenols that you’d get from red wine by drinking a shot of grape or pomegranate juice.

If you enjoy the flavor of alcoholic beverages, or the pleasant sensations that accompany the alcohol-triggered release of endorphins, or the social aspects of sharing a drink in good company, those could be counted as benefits. If you’re enjoying those benefits to the tune of five or fewer drinks a week, you’re at very low risk. If your consumption is between five and ten drinks per week, you are at slightly higher risk, but that might be a risk that you’re willing to accept in exchange for those benefits. The more you drink, of course, the fewer the benefits and the higher your risk. Once you’re above ten drinks a week, the risks start to climb rather exponentially.

I think it’s also important to recognize that simply counting drinks per week can give us an incomplete or distorted picture. Mary drinks one glass of wine with dinner every night. Joe doesn’t drink all week but goes out on Saturday and has five beers. Statistically speaking, Joe is in a lower risk category than Mary. But there’s little doubt that Mary’s drinking pattern is safer than Joe’s.

Let's be clear: We don’t need to drink alcohol to keep our hearts healthy.

There’s also the sobering fact that alcohol can be addictive. The more often you drink, the more susceptible you are to its habit-forming nature. Having a drink increases your desire to have another and at the same time impairs your ability to judge whether or not that’s a good idea. One drink a day can quickly lead to two or three or, before you know it, five. Because it is so widely consumed and accepted in our society, excessive drinking can seem quite normal.

If you frequently have more than three drinks in a day or more than ten drinks in a week, or you repeatedly try but fail to change your drinking patterns, it’s a sign that your drinking may be out of control. Even if you feel that your drinking is not a problem, taking a 30-day break from all drinking can be a very helpful way to reset your habits and reassess the impact of alcohol on your life, health, relationships, wallet, and waistline. (And the more unthinkable that is, the more you might want to seriously consider doing it.) Some people discover that they actually enjoy life more without the "benefits" of alcohol. Others simply find that it’s much easier not to drink at all than to drink just a little.

The Bottom Line on Alcohol and Longevity

Risk and moderation are both subjective and relative. Whether we’re talking about alcohol or red meat or roller coasters, each of us is likely to assess the benefits and the risks differently. For many people, alcoholic beverages can fit into a healthy lifestyle. But I think it’s time to stop promoting the questionable health benefits of alcohol and start being more honest about its costs. 

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? I'd love to hear from you. Post your comments below or on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page. Image of liquor bottles © Shutterstock

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A few weeks ago, I talked about the concept of fiber density, which is a way of looking at how much fiber a food contains per calorie. As we discovered, some high fiber foods are also relatively high in calories. Choosing foods with a high fiber density (which have more fiber per calorie) can help you increase your fiber without blowing out your calorie budget.

Protein can present a similar dilemma, especially for vegetarians. In order to get the same amount of protein from black beans as I would from chicken breast, I’d have to eat three times as many calories. It can be challenging to increase your protein intake using plant-based sources without taking in more calories than you need. This is where the concept of protein density can help.

Just as we did for fiber density, we can calculate the protein density of a food by dividing the protein by the calories. Foods with a higher protein density provide more protein per calorie.

Which Foods Have the Most Protein Per Calorie?

Not surprisingly, animal proteins like meat, fish, eggs, and chicken have a much higher protein density than plant based proteins like beans, nuts, seeds, and grains. Among the animal proteins I compared, chicken breast, egg whites, and lowfat cottage cheese have the highest protein density. Whole eggs, cheese, and other full-fat dairy products were among the lowest in protein density.

That’s not to say that full-fat dairy products aren’t good for you or that egg whites are better than whole eggs. Protein isn’t the be-all and end-all of good nutrition. But if you are looking for ways to get more protein with fewer calories, those are probably not the foods you want to turn to.

The protein density score is even more useful if you are limiting yourself to plant-based proteins.

Protein Density of Plant Foods

Certain vegetables (especially mushrooms, leafy greens, and cabbage) have a surprisingly high protein density. Bok choi, for example, has a protein density score of 12, about the same as lean ground beef. That means that if you eat 100 calories worth of bok choi or lean beef, you’ll get about 12 grams of protein. Not too shabby! But here’s the rub: You’d have to eat about 8 cups of bok choi to get as much protein (and calories) as you’d get from a three ounce hamburger. That’s an awful lot of bok choi.

Peanuts and pumpkin seeds are your best bets in the nut and seed category, with protein density of 4 and 5, respectively.  Just remember 'P' for protein!

Even though they have a high protein density, these vegetables may not be a practical way to get a whole lot of protein at one time. Tofu, on the other hand, not only has the same amount of protein per calorie as lean ground beef, but also about the same amount of protein per serving.

Some of the things that vegetarians consider to be go-to protein sources have surprisingly low protein density. Almonds, for example, have a protein density of just 3.5. Sunflower seeds are even lower, just 2.8. That means you’ll have to take in a lot of calories to get a little protein. In terms of protein, peanuts and pumpkin seeds are your best bets in the nut and seed category, with protein density of 4 and 5, respectively.  Just remember “P” for protein!

Which Has More Protein per Calorie?

Here’s one that may surprise you: Although we tend to think of wheat as a carbohydrate, it actually has a decent amount of protein as well. Whole wheat bread, for example, has a protein density of 5, about the same as whole milk and significantly higher than quinoa, which is often heralded for its protein content.

As you can see, the protein density score gives you an easy way to compare similar foods. Black beans have a protein density score of 6, meaning that 100 calories worth of black beans only delivers 6 grams of protein. Edamame, on the other hand, has a protein density of around 10. You get ~50% more protein from the same number of calories.

Earlier this year, I reviewed two vegan hamburger products, the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger. The Beyond Burger is made of pea protein and has a protein density of 7. The Impossible Burger, which is made from soy and wheat protein, has a protein density of 9. (By way of comparison, a regular hamburger has a protein density of 10.)

Here are a few more unexpected findings: Cheddar cheese has a protein density of 5 while mozzarella is around 8. A regular baked potato has a protein density of 3 (about the same as almonds), compared with a baked sweet potato, which is only 2. And while similar in calories, it turns out that whole wheat pasta beats out egg noodles in terms of protein density, 4 to 3.

I should point out that protein density does not take into account protein quality.

Just for fun, I’ve posted a table of some healthy foods and their protein density but you can quickly calculate and compare protein density by dividing the protein by the calories and then multiplying by 100.

I should point out that protein density does not take into account protein quality. Because they contain a more optimal distribution of essential amino acids, animal proteins have a higher biological value than plant-based proteins. Nonetheless, protein density can still be useful—and it's a whole lot easier to calculate.

Let me know whether you find protein density to be a useful tool. Post your comments below or on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page.

Resources:

Protein Density of Foods

Fiber Density of Foods

Image of protein-rich foods © Shutterstock

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People who eat more salt tend to weigh more. But maybe not for the reasons you think.

Eating a lot of salt can cause your body to retain more water, which can show up on the scale as extra pounds. But we’re not just talking about water weight here. High salt diets appear to be linked to higher body fat—in particular, the kind of fat that accumulates around your middle.

There are a few obvious explanations for this. First, just think about what kinds of foods tend to be higher in salt: snacks, chips, fast food, fried foods, processed foods, and restaurant meals. It might also surprise you to know that bread is one of the primary sources of sodium in the Western diet.

All of these high-sodium foods are also relatively high in calories. Not only that, they are notoriously easy to overeat. So, if your diet contains a lot of snacks, chips, bread, fried foods, and restaurant meals, you’re not only going to be consuming a lot of salt, but probably also a lot more calories. That could certainly explain the link between sodium and weight.

There are some other possible explanations. Taking in more sodium can also increase your appetite, leading you to eat more. Salty foods can also make you thirsty, which could increase your intake of caloric beverages like soda or beer. (That’s certainly what they’re hoping when they put those bowls of salty snacks out in bars!)

If high-sodium diets are more likely to be high-calorie diets, then it’s not exactly a mystery why people who eat more salt also weigh more. But then a 2015 study found that higher sodium intake was linked to higher body weight and larger waist circumference—even when calorie intake was not higher.

That’s a little harder to explain. But some new research suggests that the link between sodium and obesity could also involve the microbiome. (Lately, it seems as if all roads lead to the microbiome, doesn’t it?)

Dominick Müller’s research group at the Max Dellbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin just released data from a new study showing that high-sodium diets may kill off the beneficial lactobacillus bacteria in our guts—which may set us up for weight gain. Conversely, moderating our sodium intake may help us maintain healthier gut flora, which is associated with healthier body weight. Who saw that coming?

High-sodium diets also tend to increase blood pressure, of course. We’ve always assumed that this has to do with how sodium intake affects water retention and blood volume. But could the change in gut bacteria play a role? Potentially, yes.

Could it be that a probiotic supplement could one day be an effective treatment for high blood pressure in humans? Time will tell.

Müller’s group found that in mice, anyway, administering a probiotic along with a high-sodium diet not only restored the mice’s gut flora, it also decreased their blood pressure. They are currently awaiting approval for a study to test this in humans. But the preliminary findings certainly suggest that the effect of salt on blood pressure and its effect on gut bacteria are not unrelated.

Perhaps blood pressure is yet another in the growing list of bodily functions that are influenced by the bacteria in our intestines, along with brain chemistry, cholesterol levels, immune function, digestion, hormones, blood sugar metabolism, and weight management. And to think that only a few decades ago, we didn’t even suspect that all those little beasties were in there, much less that they were pretty much running the show!

Could it be that a probiotic supplement could one day be an effective treatment for high blood pressure in humans? Time will tell. In the meantime, simply avoiding excessive sodium consumption could help preserve a healthier microbiome. And to the extent that limiting sodium also means limiting our consumption of highly-processed, high-calorie junk food, so much the better!

There’s no need to ban the salt-shaker entirely. If you simply focus on eating more whole and minimally-processed foods, the sodium will probably take care of itself, even if you salt your food to taste. As it happens, that same strategy of eating more whole and minimally-processed foods is also a good way to lower your blood pressure and manage your weight. Your gut bacteria may be the link that ties all of this together.

As new research becomes available, you’ll hear about it here. In the meantime, feel free to send your nutrition questions my way and to connect with me on Facebook!

Image of hand pinching salt © Shutterstock

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A listener writes: “I have recurrent problems with candida or yeast. I have seen articles stating that I should eat less sugar and avoid foods that contain yeast, such as bread. How accurate is this advice?”

I’m so glad you asked! There is a confusing mix of true and false information about candida diet and nutrition. Let’s sort fact from fiction.

Candida albicans is a type of yeast that is commonly found both on and in the human body, where it generally causes no problems. Certain conditions, however, can lead to an overgrowth of this benign organism.The resulting infection is known as candidiasis.

An overgrowth can affect mouth and throat, in which case it is commonly referred to as thrush. Very rarely, it can spread via the blood to internal organs. But by far the most common location for candidiasis is the vagina.

What Causes Yeast Infections?

Antibiotic use can set the stage for yeast overgrowth by killing off beneficial bacteria that would normally hold candida populations in check. High estrogen levels can also be a risk factor, which is why yeast infections are more common when you are pregnant or taking hormones. People with a suppressed immune system can also be more susceptible to yeast overgrowth, as are those with diabetes.

But apart from these more obvious risk factors, some women just seem to suffer from more than their share of these uncomfortable infections. It’s natural to wonder whether diet and nutrition could possibly play a role. And, as this listener discovered, you’ll find lots of advice on the Internet for Anti-Yeast or Anti-Candida diets.

The most common advice is to limit sugar and carbohydrates, avoid yeast-containing foods, and to increase your intake of probiotic foods. Let’s take these one by one.

Does a high-carb diet cause yeast infections?  

As I mentioned before, people with diabetes are at higher risk for yeast infections—especially if their diabetes is poorly controlled. This might suggest that high blood sugar levels encourage yeast growth—but this hasn’t been proven. Yeast organisms are generally not in your bloodstream, so it’s not as if having extra sugar in your blood provides more food for the yeast and causes them to proliferate.

If there is a link between sugar consumption and yeast growth, it’s more likely due to the way that diet affects the chemical composition of your urine. One study found that cutting down on the consumption of both sugar and artificial sweeteners reduced the frequency of yeast infections in women prone to them.  

Many so-called candida diets also recommend eliminating starches as well. I was unable to find any research showing that cutting out pasta, bread, crackers, and other things made with white flour affects the frequency or severity of yeast infections. That said, there are a lot of other benefits to limiting your consumption of both added sugars and refined flour.  

The Quick and Dirty: Even though the evidence linking refined carbs to yeast overgrowth is limited, there doesn’t seem to be any downside to following this advice.

Will avoiding yeast help prevent yeast infections?

Probably not. Again, this doesn’t appear to have been studied in controlled trials and maybe that’s because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The type of yeast that lives on your skin and sometimes causes infections is Candida albicans. The type of yeast used to bake bread and brew beer is called Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and it only rarely causes infections. If anything, having some S. cerevisiae around may help keep your C. albicans population in check.

People with an allergy to yeast or mold, which can readily be confirmed with allergy testing, should absolutely avoid foods made with yeast. However, yeast infections are not caused by yeast allergy.

The Quick and Dirty: Foods and beverages containing yeast are unlikely a factor in candidiasis or yeast infections.

Can probiotic foods prevent yeast infections?

There is some research showing that eating yogurt can reduce the proliferation of Candida in both the mouth and the vagina—and this seems logical. The beneficial bacteria in yogurt and other fermented foods may help keep the candida population in check. Probiotic supplementation during or after antibiotic use may also help reduce the risk of antibiotic-related yeast infections.  

Probiotic foods are a great addition to a healthy diet and may help prevent yeast infections.

Although probiotics or probiotic foods may help prevent yeast infections, they are usually not sufficient to treat one that’s already underway. Fortunately, there are anti-fungal medications (both topical and systemic) that are effective. And at least one study found that combining one of these antifungal therapies with a probiotic supplement can work even better.

The Quick and Dirty: Probiotic foods are a great addition to a healthy diet and may help prevent yeast infections.

Do We All Suffer from Candida?

Yeast infections are pretty hard to miss. The symptoms are fairly obvious, pretty unambiguous, and usually uncomfortable enough to get your attention. However, there are some practitioners who blame yeast intolerance or hypersensitivity for a long list of vague symptoms, ranging from headaches to fatigue to muscle pain to depression. Some even claim that the vast majority of the population is suffering from undiagnosed yeast overgrowth. There is little evidence to support this theory.

It’s possible that some of those symptoms might improve on an “anti-candida” diet but this probably has more to do with reducing your consumption of refined carbohydrates and other processed foods than it does with your candida counts.

So, in summary, if you suffer from frequent yeast infections, check with a doctor to rule out any underlying causes such as diabetes or immune dysfunction. After that, reducing your consumption of added sugars and increasing your intake of yogurt and other probiotic foods might help and can't hurt. In fact, it's a good strategy for improving your overall nutrition. 

Image of candida diet journal © Shutterstock

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Nutrition Diva : Quick and Dirty Tips by Wed, 06 Jun 2018 13:10:01 -0400 - 1M ago

Listener Amy recently asked: What about xylitol for osteoporosis prevention? Is this fact or fiction?

What Is Xylitol?

Xylitol belongs to a category of molecules known as sugar alcohols, a group that also includes erythritol, maltitol, and sorbitol. Although small amounts of xylitol occur naturally in various fruits and other foods, it’s primarily used in its refined form as a low-calorie sweetener. Refined xylitol crystals, which look just like sugar, are usually produced from corn cobs or birch trees.

Sugar alcohols taste sweet but have fewer calories per gram than table sugar, so you’ll find them in dietetic or reduced-calorie foods. But in addition to being lower in calories, sugar alcohols don’t affect your blood sugar or insulin levels the way regular sugar does. So you’ll also see sugar alcohols used in so-called “diabetic” or sugar-free candies and cookies.

The Benefits of Xylitol

Xylitol, in particular, has also gotten a lot of attention for its unique ability to prevent and potentially even reverse tooth decay. You’ll find it in sugar-free gum, as well as toothpaste and mouthwash. Chewing xylitol-containing gum for 20 minutes after every meal can aid in the remineralization of your teeth and substantially reduce your risk of tooth decay.

A lesser-known benefit of xylitol is in the prevention of ear infections. Remember that the mouth and inner ear are actually connected by the eustachian tubes. So it’s possible for bacteria to travel from the nose and mouth to the ear and vice versa. Studies have demonstrated that kids who chew xylitol gum after meals and snacks can cut their risk of ear infections in half, compared with kids who chew gum without xylitol. 

Another benefit of xylitol may be to act as a prebiotic, promoting the growth of healthy bacteria in our intestines. Is there anything this sweet little molecule can’t do? How about Amy’s question: What about xylitol for osteoporosis prevention?

Xylitol and Bone Loss Prevention

Xylitol can absolutely protect against bone loss and prevent osteoporosis. If you’re a rat. When added to rat chow, xylitol has been found to protect rats from the accelerated bone loss that accompanies menopause as well as plain-old age-related bone loss. The bones of the gum-chewing mice were significantly longer, thicker, and stronger than their counterparts.

Just checking to see if you were paying attention! The researchers didn’t really give the mice chewing gum, although that is fun to imagine. They simply mixed it into their food.

Xylitol can absolutely protect against bone loss and prevent osteoporosis. If you’re a rat.

Not only did the xylitol-fed mice have less bone loss, they also developed more collagen in their skin, leading to thicker, more youthful rat cheeks. I mean, really, these rats looked half their age! The only problem in terms of leveraging this benefit to fight osteoporosis (or skin aging) in humans is the amount of xylitol required to get the benefits. The effects didn’t kick in for the rats until their diet was 10% xylitol by weight.

A typical adult would have to consume about 1 cup of xylitol crystals a day to get the equivalent dose. That’s approximately 1,000 sticks of sugar-free gum.

Even if your jaws didn’t cramp up, your intestines probably would. One tricky thing about sugar alcohols is that they can cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea if you consume too much of them. Just ask anyone who ever absent-mindedly polished off a bag of diabetic candies to kill time on a road trip. Although everyone’s “laxative threshold” is different—and you can build up a tolerance over time—the amounts shown to protect bones are much (much) higher than the amount that your intestines are likely to tolerate. Those poor mice. Sure, their skin looked great but they never got to leave the latrine!

Xylitol does have an impressive range of proven health benefits, everything from preventing cavities to heading off ear infections to improving your gut health. But, while you will find websites promoting xylitol as a way to strengthen your bones, this is probably more fiction than fact. The amount of xylitol that you can reasonably ingest is almost certainly not enough to have any measurable impact on your bone health.

Thanks for that great question, Amy! If you have a nutrition question you’d like me to answer on a future podcast, send an email or stop by one of my live Q&A sessions. You’ll find the schedule on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page.

Image of xylitol © Shutterstock

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Nutrition Diva : Quick and Dirty Tips by Tue, 05 Jun 2018 23:50:42 -0400 - 1M ago

Listener Amy recently asked: What about xylitol for osteoporosis prevention? Is this fact or fiction?

What Is Xylitol?

Xylitol belongs to a category of molecules known as sugar alcohols, a group that also includes erythritol, maltitol, and sorbitol. Although small amounts of xylitol occur naturally in various fruits and other foods, it’s primarily used in its refined form as a low-calorie sweetener. Refined xylitol crystals, which look just like sugar, are usually produced from corn cobs or birch trees.

Sugar alcohols taste sweet but have fewer calories per gram than table sugar, so you’ll find them in dietetic or reduced-calorie foods. But in addition to being lower in calories, sugar alcohols don’t affect your blood sugar or insulin levels the way regular sugar does. So you’ll also see sugar alcohols used in so-called “diabetic” or sugar-free candies and cookies.

The Benefits of Xylitol

Xylitol, in particular, has also gotten a lot of attention for its unique ability to prevent and potentially even reverse tooth decay. You’ll find it in sugar-free gum, as well as toothpaste and mouthwash. Chewing xylitol-containing gum for 20 minutes after every meal can aid in the remineralization of your teeth and substantially reduce your risk of tooth decay.

A lesser-known benefit of xylitol is in the prevention of ear infections. Remember that the mouth and inner ear are actually connected by the eustachian tubes. So it’s possible for bacteria to travel from the nose and mouth to the ear and vice versa. Studies have demonstrated that kids who chew xylitol gum after meals and snacks can cut their risk of ear infections in half, compared with kids who chew gum without xylitol. 

Another benefit of xylitol may be to act as a prebiotic, promoting the growth of healthy bacteria in our intestines. Is there anything this sweet little molecule can’t do? How about Amy’s question: What about xylitol for osteoporosis prevention?

Xylitol and Bone Loss Prevention

Xylitol can absolutely protect against bone loss and prevent osteoporosis. If you’re a rat. When added to rat chow, xylitol has been found to protect rats from the accelerated bone loss that accompanies menopause as well as plain-old age-related bone loss. The bones of the gum-chewing mice were significantly longer, thicker, and stronger than their counterparts.

Just checking to see if you were paying attention! The researchers didn’t really give the mice chewing gum, although that is fun to imagine. They simply mixed it into their food.

Xylitol can absolutely protect against bone loss and prevent osteoporosis. If you’re a rat.

Not only did the xylitol-fed mice have less bone loss, they also developed more collagen in their skin, leading to thicker, more youthful rat cheeks. I mean, really, these rats looked half their age! The only problem in terms of leveraging this benefit to fight osteoporosis (or skin aging) in humans is the amount of xylitol required to get the benefits. The effects didn’t kick in for the rats until their diet was 10% xylitol by weight.

A typical adult would have to consume about 1 cup of xylitol crystals a day to get the equivalent dose. That’s approximately 1,000 sticks of sugar-free gum.

Even if your jaws didn’t cramp up, your intestines probably would. One tricky thing about sugar alcohols is that they can cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea if you consume too much of them. Just ask anyone who ever absent-mindedly polished off a bag of diabetic candies to kill time on a road trip. Although everyone’s “laxative threshold” is different—and you can build up a tolerance over time—the amounts shown to protect bones are much (much) higher than the amount that your intestines are likely to tolerate. Those poor mice. Sure, their skin looked great but they never got to leave the latrine!

Xylitol does have an impressive range of proven health benefits, everything from preventing cavities to heading off ear infections to improving your gut health. But, while you will find websites promoting xylitol as a way to strengthen your bones, this is probably more fiction than fact. The amount of xylitol that you can reasonably ingest is almost certainly not enough to have any measurable impact on your bone health.

Thanks for that great question, Amy! If you have a nutrition question you’d like me to answer on a future podcast, send an email or stop by one of my live Q&A sessions. You’ll find the schedule on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page.

Image of xylitol © Shutterstock

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Donna wrote recently with an interesting dilemma. In an effort to improve the health of her intestinal microbiome, she’s been trying to eat more fiber.

This is a totally solid strategy. One of the most effective ways to boost the population of beneficial bacteria in your gut is to eat more prebiotic foods. And prebiotic foods is just a fancy way of describing foods that are high in fiber. Although our bodies cannot extract any nutrition from fiber, the bugs in our gut can. When we supply more food for them, they thrive.

There have been some interesting studies comparing the intestinal population of Westerners with that of rural south Africans. Their typical diet contains about twice as much fiber as the typical American diet and a lot less animal protein and fat. And the composition of their guts is strikingly different, with much higher and more diverse populations of health promoting bacteria. Not surprisingly, these Africans have much lower risks of colorectal cancer and other conditions that are thought to be influenced in part by the population of your gut.

But even more interestingly, adopting a diet that’s lower in animal fat and protein and higher in plant fiber can quickly change the composition of your gut flora for the better. And the same is also true in reverse. Switching from a diet high in plant fiber to one that’s high in animal fat and protein can quickly change the makeup of your intestinal microbiome for the worse.

Not ready to give up cheeseburgers just yet? Even without cutting down on animal protein and fat, simply adding more plant fiber to your diet can have beneficial effects. So, Donna is trying to upgrade her fiber intake from the recommended 25 grams per day to something closer to 40 or 50 grams. However, she’s finding it difficult to reach that target without eating too many calories.

What is Fiber Density?

What Donna needs is a way of ranking foods not just by their fiber content but by their fiber density, or how many grams of fiber they provide per calorie. This approach is similar to ranking foods by their nutrient density or energy density. Foods with a high nutrient density provide a lot of nutrition for not that many calories. That’s useful if you’re trying to lose weight. Foods with a higher energy density, on the other hand, provide a lot of calories in a small amount of food. That can be useful if you need to take in more calories.

There’s a lot more on nutrition and energy density here, as well as a Nutrient and Energy Density grid that you might find useful.

But if you’re looking to maximize your fiber intake without blowing out your calorie budget, neither energy density or nutrient density does the trick. You want to consider foods according to their fiber density, or how much fiber they provide per calorie.

You can calculate a food’s fiber density by dividing the fiber by the calories. Foods with a higher fiber density provide more fiber for fewer calories. A cup of black beans, for example, has about 17 grams of fiber and 220 calories. It’s fiber density is about 8. A cup of cooked broccoli only has about 5 grams of fiber but also has less than 50 calories. Its fiber density is almost 12. Foods with a higher fiber density will help you increase your fiber intake without taking in too many calories.

You can use this quick and dirty calculation to compare any two foods. But I crunched the numbers on a few thousand foods for you. And here’s what I found.

Remember that you can quickly calculate the fiber density of any food by dividing the fiber grams by the calories.

As a rule, legumes will give you the most fiber per serving, with anywhere from 12 to 18 grams of fiber per cup. High fiber cereals, crackers, and breads will also give you a lot of fiber per serving. But because all of these foods are also relatively high in calories, they have single digit fiber density scores.

If it’s fiber density you’re looking for, make friends with those leafy greens. Beet, mustard, and turnip greens, chicory and endive all have fiber density scores of 15 or higher. Next on the list would be kale, berries, broccoli, green beans, and artichokes, with fiber density scores between 10 and 15.  Most legumes fall between 5 and 10. Meanwhile, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and cereals generally have fiber density scores of less than 3, meaning you’ll have to take in a lot of extra calories to take in much fiber.

Here’s a table of healthy foods ranked according to their fiber density.  

Although you probably won't see fiber density on Nutrition Facts labels or diet tracking software anytime soon, remember that you can quickly calculate the fiber density of any food by dividing the fiber grams by the calories. A fiber density of ten or more signals a food that delivers a lot of fiber without many calories. 

Do you have a nutrition question you'd like me to answer in a future podcast? Send me an email or stop by the Nutrition Diva Facebook page.

Image of fibrous foods © Shutterstock

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A recent survey by the American Psychiatric Association found that we are more anxious than ever, about health, finances, relationships, politics...you name it. On a scale of 1 to 100, this year's national anxiety score is 51, which is a 5-point increase from 2017. 

There's surely plenty to worry about these days. But anxious people tend not to be great problem-solvers. So, let's at least make sure we're not stressing out about things that we don't actually need to worry about. As my contribution to the general well-being, here are ten nutrition concerns that you can probably cross off your list.

1. Not getting enough protein.  

There's been a lot of talk lately about the benefits of eating more protein, including better appetite control, weight management, preserving lean muscle, and improving recovery from surgery, illness, or even just hard workouts. But now, I'm hearing from a lot of people who are stressed out because they are not able to eat 150 grams of protein every day. Relax! You do not necessarily have to eat that much protein in order to get the benefits. Every little bit helps. In my article How to Build More Muscle with Less Protein, I explain how to get the most benefit out of the protein that you do eat. The quick and dirty tip: Eat less protein at dinner and more at breakfast and/or lunch. 

2. Getting too much protein.  

Ironically, while half of the Internet seems hell-bent on getting us to eat more protein, the other half is warning us that we are already eating too much. As I explained in my article Do Americans Eat Too Much Protein?, these fears are unfounded. The amount of protein that we consume is not damaging our kidneys or weakening our bones

3. Carbs. 

Carbohydrates have had a rough decade, shouldering most of the blame for our epidemic rates of obesity and diabetes. It's a good idea to limit your intake of refined carbohydrates and added sugars, and to balance your intake of healthy carbohydrates like fruits and whole grains with healthy sources of fat and protein. And, of course, it's not only about the quality of your food choices, the quantity matters too. But it has been repeatedly proven that low carbohydrate diets are no more effective in losing or maintaining your weight than other diets. The diet that works best is the one that you can stick with and that will usually be one that fits your lifestyle and tastebuds. If you need help finding your best diet, start here

4. The Dirty Dozen.

Many of you have memorized this list of fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residues and assiduously avoid eating or buying them unless you are sure they are organic. In terms of minimizing your exposure to pesticides or reducing your risk of cancer, this is wasted effort. As I worte in my article on How to Reduce Your Exposure to Pesticides, the amount of pesticides you are exposed to from eating Dirty Dozen produce is far too small to pose a health risk.  The cancer-prevention and other benefits of eating those fruits and vegetables far outweigh any risks. 

5. Cooking the Nutrients out of Foods.

Another persistent and unnecessary worry is that we are cooking (or breeding) all of the nutrition out of our foods. Some nutrients do get lost when foods are cooked but also just when they are washed, or frozen, or even stored in the fridge. But it's OK. There is still plenty of good nutrition to be had from these foods. What's more, the recommended amounts for fruits, vegetables and other foods assume that some of them will be cooked or otherwise processed, so that's already built in. Cook your vegetables however you find them most palatable and you'll probablymore than make up for any nutrients that are lost by eating more of them. 

6. Anti-Nutrients.

Once again, there's an equal but opposite worry about how cooking affects nutrients. For every person worried that cooking their foods will destroy the nutrients, someone else is worried that NOT cooking their foods will expose them to so-called "anti-nutrients" like phytates, lectins, or oxalates. Not only is there very little evidence to suggest that lectins, phytates, or oxalates are causing health problems (for First World inhabitants, anyway), but lectins and phytates actually have beneficial effects on health. Cross this one off your worry list as well.

7. Skipping Breakfast. 

Are you forcing yourself to eat breakfast because you're worried that skipping breakfast will cause you to gain weight? Relax. There have been dozens of studies—including randomized, controlled trials—showing that eating breakfast has little to no impact on weight gain or loss and that people who eat breakfast often end up eating more calories than those who don't. Our belief in the protective effect of breakfast far exceeds the actual evidence.

If eating breakfast works for you, keep right on doing it. But skipping (or delaying) breakfast can be a perfectly healthy option...as long as your daily intake is otherwise nutritious, balanced, and right-sized.

8. Starvation Mode. 

But won't skipping breakfast cause your body to go into starvation mode? Nope. This is another one of those things that people worry way too much about. The idea is that you need to eat every 2-3 hours in order to keep your metabolism from slowing down. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Starvation mode is a real thing but it's not what you think. If you go several days without eating or eating almost nothing, your metabolism will indeed slow down in an effort to conserve energy and extend the length of time it will take you to starve to death. But not eating for 5 hours between lunch and dinner, or going 12 hours between dinner and breakfast is not going to cause your metabolism to slow down. In fact, going longer between meals can actually benefit your metabolism and weight management efforts in several ways. 

If you're running out of room on your phone, you can safely delete the app whose only function is to nag you to drink more water!

9. Dehydration. 

There's a widespread myth that the vast majority of Americans are chronically dehydrated. Although dehydration can be a problem among the elderly and those exerting themselves in hot and/or dry conditions, the typical American is not in danger of dehydration. And contrary to everything you've been told, you do not have to drink 8 glasses of water a day in order to meet your fluid requirements. So, if you're running out of room on your phone, you can safely delete the app whose only function is to nag you to drink more water! Although dehydration is probably not something you need to worry about, you may still find that drinking some extra water can help you manage your appetite and even feel more alert. 

10. Not Having a Perfect Diet.  

I think it's great that people seem to be so interested in nutrition these days. But ideas about what it takes to be healthy seem to be getting more and more extreme, requiring that you completely eliminate certain ingredients, foods, even entire food groups. The problem with these all-or-nothing approaches is that they are rarely sustainable. And when people can't do it all, they end up doing nothing. Your diet does not have to be perfect in order to be healthy. You'll get a lot more benefit from eating pretty well most of the time than you will from eating perfectly two weekends per year. 

What's still on your worry list?

Of course, there are dozens of worries I haven't listed here but have discussed in previous podcasts. So, if things like how eggs and cholesterol, red meat and cancer, kale and your thyroid, soy and hormones, or anything else is still on your worry list, check the archives. If you don't see it, let me know and I'll address it in a future podcast or Live Q&A session.

Here's to making life just a little less worrisome!

Image of woman worried about nutrition choices © Shutterstock

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Nutrition Diva : Quick and Dirty Tips by Sun, 20 May 2018 20:20:01 -0400 - 2M ago

If drinking red wine gives you a headache, you’ve probably had someone tell you that sulfites are the likely culprit. Perhaps you’ve been advised to stick to white wine, organic wines, or wines made in Europe on the grounds that these will be lower in sulfites.

Let’s clear up some of the most common myths and misunderstandings about sulfites, wine, and headaches.

Sulfites in Wine

First, a little background: Sulphur dioxide (or SO2) is a chemical compound made up of sulfur and oxygen. It occurs naturally but can also be produced in a laboratory.  It’s used to preserve foods and beverages, which it does by acting as an antioxidant and antimicrobial.

Sulphur dioxide has been used in winemaking for thousands of years, ever since the ancient Romans discovered that it would keep their wine from turning into vinegar. To this day, winemakers use sulphur dioxide to preserve the flavor and freshness of wines.

By law, wines that contain more than 10 ppm (parts per million) sulfite must be labeled with the words “contains sulfites.”   There are also upper limits to how much sulfite a wine may contain but the regulations vary by region. In the European Union, wine may contain up to 210 ppm sulfites. In the U.S., the upper limit is 350 ppm.

Myth #1: Organic or bio-dynamic wines are sulfite free.

In order to be certified organic, a wine must not contain added sulfites. However, sulfites are produced naturally during the fermentation process as a by-product of yeast metabolism. Even though no sulfites are added, organic wine may contain between 10-40 ppm sulfites.

You may also see wines labeled as being made from organic grapes, which is not the same as organic wine. Wine made from organic grapes may contain up to 100 ppm sulfites.

If you do get a hold of wine made without sulfites, I don’t suggest keeping it in the cellar very long. Wine made without sulfites—especially white wine—is much more prone to oxidation and spoilage.

Myth #2: Red wine is higher in sulfites than white wine

Ironically, the exact opposite is likely to be true. Red wines tend to be higher in tannins than white wines. Tannins are polyphenols found in the skins, seeds, and stems of the grapes. They also act as antioxidants and preservatives so less sulfite is needed. 

In fact, while European regulations allow up to 210 ppm sulfites in white wine, the limit for red wine is only 160 ppm.

Other factors that affect how much sulfite is needed are the residual sugar and the acidity of the wine. Dryer wines with more acid will tend to be lower in sulfites. Sweet wines and dessert wines, on the other hand, tend to be quite high in sulfites.

Myth #3: Sulfites in wine cause headaches

The so-called “red wine headache” is definitely a real thing. But it’s probably not due to sulfites. For one thing, white wine is higher in sulfites than red wine but less likely to cause a headache. That suggests that it’s probably something else in red wine that’s responsible for the notorious red wine headache. Other candidates include histamines, tyramine, tannins, not to mention the alcohol itself!

See also: What is Histamine Intolerance? and Nutrition Tips for Headache Prevention

Which Foods Contain Sulfites?

A small percentage of the population (about 1%) are sensitive to sulfites--most of them are asthma sufferers. Reactions can include swelling, hives, asthma, and migraines. If you have a sulfite sensitivity, you probably want to avoid wine. But you’ll also want to steer clear of soda, candy, prepared soups, frozen juices, processed meats, potato chips, French fries and dried fruit, all of which contain much higher concentrations of sulfites than wine.

If you don’t have a sulfite sensitivity, there appears to be little reason to fear sulfites in otherwise healthy foods.  For example, you don’t have to settle for dried apricots that are tough and brown if you prefer the kind that are soft and orange.

If you have questions or comments about today's episode or a suggestion for a future show topic, post them below or on the Nutrition Diva Podcast Facebook page.  And be sure to subscribe to the Nutrition Diva podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen, so you don't miss a single episode!

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