Q: I have heard about the ORAC value of the açaí berry. Is it as high in antioxidants as they say?
A: ORAC, short for “oxygen radical absorbance capacity,” is a chemical test scientists use to measure the antioxidant potency of a particular food. There are actually a variety of tests that scientists can use to test the antioxidant capacity of foods. What must be understood, however, is that the antioxidant capacity of a specific food determined in the lab does not necessarily translate to the antioxidant capacity of that food in the human body. That said, to strengthen our body’s defenses against highly destructive free radical damage, we should try to eat a variety of plant foods (high on the ORAC scale) daily. The easiest way to do that is to consume a rainbow of colors throughout the day. In 2007, scientists at the USDA published a list of ORAC values for 277 foods. Some of the foods highest on the USDA ORAC scale include red wine, English walnuts, oregano, cocoa and gingerroot.
The açaí (pronounced ah-sigh-EE) berry is the fruit of a type of palm tree (Euterpe oleracea) that grows near the Amazon River of Brazil. Açaí is consumed in beverages and food products, and yes, it has been found to exhibit an exceptional antioxidant capacity in the lab. A recent study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (Seeram et al., 2008), ranked the antioxidant potency of several commonly consumed beverages in the United States. Pomegranate juice led the pack followed by red wine > Concord grape juice > blueberry juice > black cherry juice > açaí juice > cranberry juice > OJ, iced tea and apple juice.
The bottom line: don’t be misled by claims of one particular food’s superior antioxidant activity, which may or may not be based on accurate testing. Eating a variety of antioxidant-rich foods, on a daily basis, is your best strategy for harnessing the disease-fighting antioxidant potential of the mighty plant kingdom.
Q: What would be some alternatives for a healthy breakfast rather than my regular bowl of whole-grain cereal?
A: Nothing beats a bowl of whole-grain oatmeal for breakfast, the first step in my 10-step Cholesterol DOWN plan. I would say that eating a bowl of oatmeal made with light soy milk, some ground flaxseeds and maybe some cranberries and topped off with chopped almonds is about as good as it gets for starting the day off right. That said, if you are tired of the same old whole-grain cereal for breakfast, then why not try something new? After all, variety is the spice of life! I have some excellent, heart-healthy breakfast recipes in my book, Cholesterol DOWN, that you might enjoy.
How about Mia’s veggie omelet (named after my daughter Mia)? It is made with egg whites, lots of colorful veggies and topped off with a touch of soy cheese. Serve it up with 100% whole-grain toast spread with some plant sterol-containing margarine and you have a delicious breakfast that provides you with antioxidant-rich vegetables, soy protein and whole grains—and it lowers your cholesterol, too. Another breakfast favorite of mine that I often make for my own family on Sunday mornings is almond oat pancakes. Made with oatmeal, almonds, flaxseeds and soy milk; spread with plant sterol-containing margarine; sprinkled with powdered sugar; and served with warm Vermont maple syrup . . . these pancakes are delicious, nutritious and contain 5 of the 10 cholesterol-lowering steps in my book. It doesn’t get much better than that!
Q: Is it better to work out more days per week for shorter intervals or fewer days per week for longer intervals?
A: The answer to your question really depends on your personal preference and the type of exercise. When patients ask me what’s the best kind of exercise, my answer is always: “Whatever type of exercise that you will do on most days of the week.” In a nation of couch potatoes, suggesting that people find whatever kind of exercise works for them is sound health advice.
Major health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommend that for good health and to reduce risk of chronic disease, adult Americans should participate in moderate-intensity aerobic (or cardio) exercise (such as brisk walking) for at least 30 minutes on 5 or more days of the week or vigorous-intensity cardio at least 3 days of the week. So the frequency really depends on the intensity that you choose to gauge your exercise bout. What’s more, research has shown that the 30 minutes can be cumulative, meaning it will be just as effective if you choose to divide the 30 minutes up into 10-minute bouts.
Aerobic exercise is not the only type of exercise that you need to try and fit in. The ACSM also recommends weight training exercise (8 to 10 different exercises and 9 to 12 repetitions of each exercise) 2 days a week. Weight training exercise is essential for enhancing muscular strength and endurance, helping to prevent the decline of muscle mass (and metabolic rate) that accompanies aging, and promoting bone health.
Q: I work on a computer all day. Are there exercises I can do while working at my desk?
A: Unfortunately, with the advent of modern technology, and as a side effect of living in a high-tech world, comes the sad fact that this advancement comes at a price—it makes our workday conducive to a sedentary lifestyle. The danger in living a sedentary lifestyle is that it predisposes us to creating a caloric imbalance on the calorie expenditure side of the equation. If we expend too few calories on the physical activity side of the equation and overconsume too many calories (a simple task in our high-calorie, high-fat convenience food world) on the calories side, then we gain weight. The lack of enough physical activity is what many health professionals believe is partially responsible for the obesity epidemic in our nation today.
Consider that most Americans are completely sedentary throughout their day. We work sitting at a computer all day; we sit in traffic while driving to and from work and perhaps even driving through the restaurant take-out window for meals; after work we head for the couch, where we sit in front of the TV for relaxation or again at our computers; and then it’s off to sleep. Keep in mind that these are all completely sedentary activities. For better health and weight control we must combat this sedentary behavior by making an attempt to get in some calorie-burning physical activity in our day somewhere, somehow. Thus, your question is a very important one because Americans must learn to become more physically active.
Here are two suggestions for fitting in more physical activity into your day. First off, wear a pedometer (clip it on first thing in the morning and take it off last thing at night) and see how many steps you get in daily. America On the Move Foundation is a national nonprofit organization designed to improve the health and quality of life of Americans. They suggest adding in an extra 2,000 steps to your daily routine to get you on the road to health and fitness. Second, when at your computer, make it a habit to get up and stretch, walk around the room for at least 5 to 10 minutes every hour. Taking a short break and logging in 200 steps every hour would almost give you the extra 2000 steps the America On The Move Foundation recommends.
Q: Is it true there is little to no nutritional value in some vegetables such as lettuce or pickles?
A: When it comes to lettuce, a little color goes a long way. It is true that iceberg lettuce is pretty low on the totem pole regarding nutrients. Let’s compare a cup of shredded iceberg lettuce to, say, 1 cup of spinach and see which one stacks up better:
Iceberg lettuce: 10 calories, 7% of the daily value (DV) for vitamin A, 3% DV for vitamin C, 2% DV for iron, 1% for calcium.
Spinach: 7 calories, 56% of the daily value (DV) for vitamin A, 14% DV for vitamin C, 5% DV iron, 3% calcium.
So you can see, spinach gives you a much greater nutrient bang for your calorie buck. This is what good nutrition choices are all about: filling your daily calorie quota with the most nutrient-dense foods.
The beauty of pickles is in regard to weight control because they are very tasty and very low in calories. However, they do pack a sky-high sodium count. One large dill pickle, for example, contains a mere 16 calories and zero fat and cholesterol BUT unfortunately will also give you half of your day’s sodium allowance (a whopping 1,181 mg) in just a few bites. According to a recent report form the World Health Organization, there is strong evidence of a link between excessive sodium intake and the development of chronic disease (especially high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S.). The report recommends that governments around the world institute guidelines to reduce sodium consumption to 2,000 mg per day, or about half of what the typical American consumes.