Are food additives safe? Maybe. Should you try to avoid them? Good luck!

Making healthier food choices is something that you should be thinking about every day, so this is a good opportunity to revisit some advice to help you make smart decisions. Eating more fruits and vegetables, limiting added sugar, and focusing on “real food” instead of processed, prepackaged meals and snacks are always good ideas. One reason to avoid processed foods, including restaurant meals, is to avoid food additives. While most food additives are probably safe, some may be harmful. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

food additives


If you have ever read the ingredients on a food package you no doubt realized that much of what we eat isn’t really food. Chemical additives are common in packaged foods as preservatives, coloring agents, flavor enhancers, and even vitamins and minerals. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since these chemicals allow food to last longer, look and taste more appealing, and provide essential nutrients. The assumption is that these additives have been tested and proven safe for us to consume. Unfortunately, that is not the case for many commonly used additives.

This may be surprising, but it isn’t new. In the late 1950s Congress required that new food additives must be proven safe before they could be used. That raised the question of what to do with additives that were already widely in use. Since people had been eating these additives with no apparent ill effects the decision was made to classify them as safe, and the “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) list was created.

Now additives may be approved as GRAS by an expert panel without rigorous testing and FDA approval. One study found that in every case these reviewers worked directly for or had financial ties to the companies that manufactured the additives. This raises serious questions about the process and whether or not the chemicals added to our foods really are safe.

So, are the additives in our food safe? There is no simple answer to that question, mostly because safety studies haven’t been done. However, it is rare that a food additive is removed from the market for health reasons. Most research showing that a food additive may be unhealthy is conducted in animals. These studies often test amounts that are far higher than people would reasonably consume, so they may not predict the health effects in humans. And some additives, such as iron added to cereal or vitamin D added to milk, for example, are widely thought to be beneficial.

To be sure, there are some chemicals in our food that we should avoid, but it isn’t fair to say that all food additives are bad. Even so, eating foods that are free from additives is probably a good idea. Even though each individual additive may not be hazardous, it is possible that exposure to small amounts of these chemicals in combination could be dangerous over time.

Much of our exposure to food additives comes in the form of processed, prepackaged foods, including many restaurant meals. Getting back to basics and cooking using “real” food— fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats—is one way to avoid processed foods. Reading food labels can help, too. Look for ingredients that you recognize as food and avoid additives that clearly aren’t.

Avoiding all food additives is almost impossible. Even foods that don’t come in packages, such as fruits and vegetables, may contain coatings that prevent damage or preserve freshness. Even canned fruits and vegetables will likely have added salt or sugar, so even apparently healthy foods can contain additives. The best way to limit them is to select as many fresh foods as possible and make an effort to check labels for additives.

If you are interested in food additives and other aspects of food safety, nutrition, and health, here are two excellent resources:

The Center for Science in the Public Interest report on food additive safety : http://www.cspinet.com/reports/chemcuisine.htm

Marion Nestle, has an excellent blog about all aspects of nutrition, including food additives and safety:  http://www.foodpolitics.com/


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That’s not coffee! It’s your morning milkshake.

Breakfast is often thought of as the most important meal of the day, for good reason. Eating a healthy breakfast provides energy to start the day and can be helpful for weight control. In children, a healthy breakfast is essential for proper growth and development and is linked to improved attention and learning in school. Unfortunately, many common breakfast foods are more like candy and soda than a healthy meal to start the day.

This is also true for breakfast drinks, including coffee drinks. Many popular coffee drinks are more similar to a milkshake than to actual coffee!

Take, for example, the grande (16 oz) Mocha Frappuccino blended coffee drink from Starbucks. This drink has 410 calories, 15 grams of fat, 61 grams of sugar, and 5 grams of protein. To put this in perspective, 61 grams of sugar is more than most people should have in an entire day!

You could order this drink with nonfat milk and no whipped cream. That’s a good idea, but it will still have 270 calories, 1 gram of fat, and 59 g sugar. That’s still a lot of sugar!

Let’s compare that to a small (16 oz.) McCafe Mocha Frappé from McDonald’s, which is essentially a coffee milkshake. It has 500 calories, 20 grams of fat, 66 grams of sugar, and 8 grams of protein.

Sure, the calories and sugar in the coffee drink aren’t quite as outrageous as the milkshake, but it’s close. This is especially clear when you compare the coffee drink to actual coffee. A grande (16 oz.) Pike Place Roast from Starbucks has 5 calories and no fat or sugar. If you like cream and sugar in your coffee, that adds 5 grams of sugar, 3 grams of fat, and about 50 calories, still way less than either “coffee” drink.

If you don’t want plain coffee a better choice might be a grande Starbucks Cappuccino, which has 140 calories, 7 g fat, and 10 g sugar. Get one with nonfat milk and you cut out 60 calories from fat. If you are worried about how much sugar you consume and how many calories you drink (you probably should be!), this is a much better coffee drink choice than a milkshake!

This isn’t specific to Starbucks. A medium (16 oz.) iced coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts has 130 calories and 28 grams of sugar. And that doesn’t include a donut.

Does this mean you can’t enjoy a delicious coffee drink? Of course not. But don’t try to fool yourself by calling it coffee. Depending on what you order, it may essentially be a milkshake! I think we can all agree that is not part of a healthy breakfast.

I call this idea that unhealthy food makes its way onto our breakfast table Candy & Soda for Breakfast. Foods like donuts and pastries are often topped with icing and it would be difficult to distinguish many muffins from cupcakes. Many “fruit” drinks contain little to no juice but plenty of added sugar, so they are essentially soda without bubbles.

And it’s not just breakfast, either. Lunch, dinner, and snacks frequently include foods that look like a healthy choice—yogurt, nuts, and granola bars are a few examples—but really are candy and soda in disguise.

How our endless summer heat can affect your health.

School is back in session in our area, marking the unofficial end of summer, but the summer weather is still with us. High temperatures and humidity make it feel like summer hasn’t ended. Aside from being unpleasant, these conditions can be dangerous for people who are active outdoors for work or exercise, something that is especially important for youth sports and other outdoor activities. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Staying healthy when going back to school, part 2

Last week I wrote about how to make returning to school healthier for children and families. The focus was on preventing the spread of COVID through vaccinations and mask use. Unfortunately, schools in our community cannot require children and teachers to wear masks and be vaccinated when eligible, so many schools are already seeing outbreaks leading to quarantines, closure of some schools, and some serious illnesses and deaths. Keeping children and families safe from COVID remains the top priority when it comes to making this school year a healthy one.

But there is more we all should do to stay healthy this year.  Here are a few suggestions to improve the health and wellbeing of our children and families.

 Make sure everyone in the family is active every day. Physical activity is critical for good health for everyone. Importantly, it can improve your immune system, helping you fight viruses of all kinds. Beyond that, being active can help you perform better at work and school and make it easier to do things you enjoy in your leisure time. Adults should be active for a minimum of 30 minutes per day. Everything from taking the dog for a walk to a fitness class at the gym counts. For children, the goal is 60 minutes per day through PE class, sports, and play. As a bonus, you can do at least some of the activity together to make activity a family event!

Make healthy eating a family project. There is a lot of confusion about what makes a healthy diet, but there are a few guidelines almost everyone agrees on. First, eat more fruits and vegetables. At a minimum, eat at least 5 servings each day, but try for twice that. Second, limit added sugars and salt. This is tricky since salt, sugar, and other sweeteners are added to most processed foods. Eating too much sugar is known to contribute to obesity, heart disease, and some cancers, so this is among the smartest nutrition moves you can make. Salt, by itself, isn’t necessarily harmful, but less salt almost always means less processed food and more “real” food. Finally, be mindful of portion sizes. Super-sized servings and second (and third) helpings are the primary reason why people gain weight over time.

Plan to eat at least one meal together each day. Most experts agree that family dinners are important for promoting good communication and healthy eating habits. Given that our days are busy with work, school, and other activities, eating dinner together every night is unrealistic for many families. So, start with planning at least one family dinner at home each week. This is also a good opportunity to teach children about food and cooking, so it is even better if you prepare the meal together.

Make getting enough sleep a priority. Many American adults and children don’t get enough sleep. Many American adults and children don’t get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can affect children’s growth, development, and learning.  It can also have an impact on an adult’s productivity at work. The effect of chronic stress on health is well known and we should recognize a lack of sleep as a form of stress. A good goal for adults is 7–9 hours of sleep each night. School-aged children need 8–12 hours, with younger kids requiring more. As difficult as it may be, earlier bedtimes can benefit everyone in the family. Limiting screen time (TV, computer, tablet) before bed can help improve sleep, too.

Obviously, these ideas are easier read than done, especially for busy families. But moving more, eating better, and getting more sleep—especially if it is done together—can help your family enjoy a happier and healthier year.

Staying healthy when going back to school, part 1

It’s the time of year when summer is winding down and kids are heading back to school. After two years of learning that was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, parents, students, and teachers were hoping for a more normal return to school. As we know, all children need to be healthy to learn and grow at school. Staying healthy includes avoiding illness, of course, but it also includes regular physical activity, good nutrition, and getting enough sleep.

When it comes to the health of students, teachers and their families, the biggest concern this year is still the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The predominant virus now is the delta variant, which spreads more readily and tends to lead to more serious infections, including in children. The best way to prevent infection and illness is through vaccinations, masking, and physical distancing.

While vaccinated people can still spread the virus, they are less likely to get seriously ill and require hospitalization. In recent weeks, over 95% of people who have been hospitalized or died due to the delta variant were unvaccinated. This strongly suggests that vaccination can prevent serious illness.

The fact that the delta variant can be easily spread, even by vaccinated people, explains the continued need for masking. The CDC recommends mask use indoors for all people regardless of vaccination status. This is especially, important in schools, since many school-age children who are under the age of 12 are not eligible for the vaccine.

Unfortunately, in our area and others around the country, vaccination rates are relatively low, putting many children and adults at risk. Adding to the problem, in some places mask use cannot be required in schools or is not encouraged among students and teachers. For example, at my kids’ school, parents were told that children who wear masks would be “welcomed” on campus.  

This is far short of the recommendation given by other local school leaders that actively promote vaccinations and mask use for students and staff, despite a prohibition of making these steps requirements for attendance. Already there are some schools that do not require mask use in our area and elsewhere that have had to make changes to their face-to-face teaching plan due to COVID outbreaks at their school.

The first step in making this a healthy return to school by protecting children, teachers, and their families from serious illness is to get vaccinated, wear masks, and physically distance when possible in schools. The COVID vaccinations are safe, effective, and free, so with very few exceptions there is no good reason for everyone not to get vaccinated.

We are all tired of wearing masks, but they are an easy way to allow people to more safely gather indoors whether that is at school, work, or other settings. Physical distancing, while not always easy, is also a good way to limit the spread of COVID and other viruses in crowded environments like classrooms. These same steps allowed many schools to open for in person learning last year and are the key to keeping kids in school this year.

Keeping children safe from COVID to allow them to stay in school is only the first step in a healthy start to the new school year. Next week I will explore how physical activity and exercise, good nutrition, getting enough sleep, and managing stress are essential for good performance at school. The good news is these same steps can help keep everyone healthy and happy this year.

Your park prescription for outdoor activity this summer.

You probably know that exercise is good for you and that daily physical activity—going for a walk, for example—almost always leads to better health. A lower risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers are among a long list of positive health effects of physical activity. Lesser known benefits include improved mental health, cognitive function, and greater feelings of well being.

What you may not know is that where you exercise matters, too. Exercise outdoors, especially in nature, can be particularly beneficial. This is not surprising given that being active in a natural environment has been shown to have an impact on mental health. Indeed, activity outdoors leads to enhanced feelings of energy and diminished fatigue, anxiety, anger, and sadness compared to similar activity conducted indoors.

Especially now, the chance to be active outdoors away from crowds is certainly a good idea. Exploring parks and other outdoor places may be a smart and economical alternative to a vacation to place crowded with tourists. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

walk-in-woods

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It’s hot! So get fit and stay cool in the pool.

It’s hot! Whether you are swimming laps or splashing in a lake, swimming is a great way to stay cool and fit this summer. Swimming is also an excellent exercise for improving your fitness and helping with weight loss.

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Swimmer

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How to become an Olympic champion.

The Olympics are an excellent opportunity to see some of the world’s fittest athletes in action. Endurance events like the marathon, power events like sprints, team sports like soccer or basketball, and exhibitions of individual skill in gymnastics all highlight the dedication and training of these elite athletes. You may wonder what it takes to become an Olympic champion. In my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week that the answer is a combination of focused, intense training and some good luck.

Olympic rings


First, the training. The key to performance in long-duration events like distance running, cycling, swimming, and rowing is for the muscle to contract repeatedly and forcefully without fatigue. In order to do so, the muscle must have a steady supply of oxygen and nutrients (primarily fats and carbohydrates). These nutrients are delivered through the blood which is pumped to the muscle by the heart. The muscle takes up and uses these nutrients to produce ATP, the form of energy used by the muscle.

After months and years of endurance training the heart gets bigger and blood volume expands, resulting in the ejection of more blood to the muscle. Within the muscle there is an increase in the number of capillaries, the small blood vessels that deliver blood to the muscle, and mitochondria, the part of the cell that produces most of the ATP. Together, these adaptations allow the muscle to produce more ATP without fatigue, permitting the athlete to sustain a higher intensity (running speed, for example) for a longer time without fatigue. These adaptations are consistent with a change in muscle fiber type from fast (type IIx) to slow (type I and IIa) fibers, which are rich in capillaries and mitochondria, making them resistant to fatigue.

These adaptations occur to some extent in everyone who participates in regular exercise. Olympic-level athletes who train for years or decades can maximize these changes. But is training alone sufficient for Olympic-level performance? Could anyone who trains enough make it to the Olympics? The answer is no, because there is another important factor in athletic performance—luck. Luck refers genetics, which play an important role in performance. As much as 50% of performance in some events is attributed to genetics. Elite endurance athletes were fortunate to be born to parents who bestowed them with large hearts and muscle that was composed of a high percentage of slow fibers (the average person has about 50% slow fibers). Of course, years of training amplifies these attributes to result in a large, strong heart that can pump lots of blood to muscle that is made up of slow, fatigue-resistant fibers.

Genetics and training are the two major factors that lead to success in every other Olympic event, too. Sprinters and other power athletes have more fast (IIx) muscle fibers to generate high levels of force for a short duration. Genetics can provide a foundation of more fast fibers, upon which specialized training can build. Other events require a certain body type for optimal performance, which can be seen in female gymnasts (petite but strong) and swimmers (Michael Phelps’ arm span, for example). And beyond the physiological adaptations, years of training builds skill, technique, and mental focus that is essential for competition.

It is too late for most of us to become Olympic champions. But we can all experience many of the same benefits of training as Olympic athletes. And we can certainly appreciate the training, dedication, and good luck that the athletes bring to the games.


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After the ouch: New ways to treat minor sports injuries.

If you play sports or exercise regularly you probably have experienced some sort of injury. Hopefully yours was just a minor muscle strain, joint sprain, or soreness that didn’t prevent you from continuing your exercise program. It is always best to address minor injuries before they progress to cause more lasting damage.

If you do sustain a muscle or joint injury you will probably ice the affected area to help it heal. But there are also several newer techniques that can help speed recovery. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Kinesio tape


The most common recommendation for treating a minor exercise injury is to use ice to reduce swelling and speed healing. For example, an ankle sprain might be treated by sitting with the injured leg elevated while applying ice; later the joint might be wrapped with athletic tape to provide support and further reduce inflammation. This combination is called RICE—rest, ice, compression, elevation—and makes intuitive sense.

Several other treatments for sports injuries have become more commonly used thanks in part to their use by professional and Olympic athletes. This is also due to the realization that inflammation is a key component in tissue repair and reducing it with ice therapy might actually interfere with healing. More and more sports medicine professionals are using modalities— voodoo flossing, cupping, and kinesio taping—other than (or in addition to) RICE to treat many injuries.

The benefits of compression for injury healing can be achieved by tightly wrapping an injured area with a rubber band, called “floss,” for a short time, usually less than a minute. This technique, commonly called voodoo flossing, is used to increase joint mobility and speed healing of minor injuries. Tightly wrapping a joint does has several potential effects by which it can improve movement and reduce pain. This includes allowing tissues to move more freely and increasing blood flow to the injured area.

Cupping gained much attention when swimmer Michael Phelps appeared at a race in the 2016 Olympics with large red welts on his back. He wasn’t hurt, as many feared. Rather, he was using cupping as a technique to treat injury and improve performance. Cupping literally involves the application of glass or plastic cups to the skin for several minutes, typically 5–15 minutes. Using either vacuum or heat, the cups pull the skin away from the underlying muscle tissue, increasing blood flow and improving movement. While cupping may be new to most of us, it has been used since ancient times and factors prominently in traditional Chinese medicine.

While voodoo flossing and cupping have a role in treating injuries and improving performance in the training room, there is a relatively new modality that can be used during exercise to enhance performance. Kinesio tape, also called K-tape, is applied over specific muscles to reduce pain and improve movement. The tape pulls the skin away from the underlying muscle, which increases blood flow and enhances movement, much like cupping. The difference is that kinesio tape can be used during exercise, as many people first saw on the shoulders of beach volleyball players in the 2008 Olympics.

While many sports medicine professionals still recommend RICE as a first line treatment for minor injuries, they are increasingly utilizing these alternative treatments. With a little training, people can use these techniques at home to treat some of their own minor injuries. Obviously, it is important to learn how to properly do these treatments and evaluate whether they are working. Improper treatment can delay healing and may make some injuries worse, so these treatments might be best done by trained professionals. And some injuries do require attention by sports medicine professionals. That said, if you are looking for an injury treatment beyond RICE, voodoo flossing, cupping, and kinesio tape might be worth trying.


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FITT-SPF: How to exercise safely in the sun this summer.

People who exercise are probably familiar with FITT—frequency, intensity, time, and type—the basic principle behind almost all fitness programs. The FITT principle applies to everything from running to weightlifting to yoga. For people who exercise outdoors there are three more letters that are important to know, especially in the summer: SPF. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

woman running on beach

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