Monday, October 22, 2012

Is a Gluten-Free Diet for You?

If you have been shopping in the local grocery or bakery stores lately, you may be seeing the growing crop of special foods labeled gluten-free. How do you know if this is useful for your health or more dietary hype? Let’s examine what a gluten-free diet is and who would or would not benefit. Gluten is the protein found in the following grains: wheat, barley, rye and triticale. It gives products made from these grains their structure and elasticity for the dough to rise. It is also a popular food additive in many baked goods, cereals, malt, caramel flavorings, breads, cookies and pastas. Gluten-free grains and starches include: amaranth, arrowroot, corn, flax, millet, oats (but watch since oats are often milled where wheat is, so could be contaminated), potato, quinoa, rice, tapioca, and flours made from nuts, beans and seeds. These grains are starches are no healthier than those with gluten, a common misconception. The trouble with gluten is for some people, an estimated 1 in 133, their body’s intestinal system creates an inflammatory response to the gluten, causing a cascade of reactions such as abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea or constipation, malabsorption of nutrients, weight loss, dermatitis, swelling, mouth ulcers, osteoporosis, and bone fractures. When they are diagnosed, the disease state is celiac disease, and these people must avoid gluten. For some people, they may test negative for celiac disease, but still feel better from eliminating gluten; in this case they may have gluten intolerance. However, there is much controversy about this diagnosis since there is no definitive test for gluten intolerance. If you suspect you may have a problem with gluten, it is important to check with your doctor to get diagnosed before you eliminate gluten and spend money on all those expensive gluten-free products . The key to a proper diagnosis is you must be ingesting gluten to see if you have any gluten intolerance, celiac disease or not. Many people are self-diagnosing, which can be very problematic, as they are missing several essential nutrients including: iron, calcium fiber, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folate. These deficiencies over time can lead to several medical problems like anemias and osteoporosis, to name a few. Your doctor will refer you to a registered dietitian for further dietary analysis and recommendations if you do have any gluten issues or not. To find out more about celiac disease, see the National Association for Celiac Awareness at

Friday, September 14, 2012

Organic Foods

By Michelle Underwood, Dietetic Intern with Penn State Extension In today’s ever-changing marketplace, choosing foods to nourish your family while maintaining a budget can be both difficult and confusing. It seems there are so many foods touting health claims these days, which makes it harder to decode what will be a good choice for your family’s dinner table. “Organic”, “all-natural”, “fresh”, “antibiotic-free”, “cage-free”, “free-range” - what does all this mean and is it worth the price? The term “organic” refers to foods which have been farmed and produced according to the standards of the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP). Organic farms cannot use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, sewage sludge fertilizers, genetically modified seeds, growth hormones, antibiotics or drugs (except in the case of illness). Animals being raised organically must have access to the outdoors, organic feed, and live in non-stressful settings. Organic food processing cannot use non-organic ingredients, irradiation, genetically engineered ingredients, or solvents to extract oil. Farmers must demonstrate these characteristics for three years prior to becoming a certified organic farm. (Organic Labels, 2003) One cannot assume any food that uses the term “organic” is 100% organic. There are four types of organic labels: “100% organic”, “organic”, “made with organic ingredients”, and others. Foods labeled “100% organic” with the USDA organic seal are the only foods guaranteed to be 100% organic. Foods labeled “organic” must contain at least 95% organic ingredients and have the USDA organic seal. Foods labeled “made with organic ingredients” may not use the USDA organic seal, but must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. Other foods containing organic ingredients may not use the USDA organic seal and may only list the organic ingredients in the ingredient list. (Organic Labeling, 2012) Food labeled as “natural”, “fresh”, “cage-free”, and other labels cannot be assumed to be organic as these terms do not share the same definition. But are organic foods worth the price? Some might agree, citing an array of health claims from preventing cancer to autism, while others state that you can get all of the benefits of fruits and vegetables from conventionally farmed foods- often for half the price of organic produce. Some advantages of organic foods can include fresh taste, support of local industry, and less environmental impact. However, organic foods can often be costly, less convenient to purchase, and can be misleading as to whether or not they are truly organic. A systematic review of 240 studies from 1966-2011 by Stanford University researchers concluded that organic foods cannot be assumed to have more nutrients as conventionally farmed produce. Organic foods have been found to contain less pesticide residue, but the amount of pesticide residue found in conventionally farmed produce is at acceptable levels and is not known to harm humans. (Spangler et. al, 2012) So, are organic foods worth the price? Choosing organic foods is really a personal choice to be made by each consumer, weighing the pros and cons. If it comes to decreasing the quantity of fruits and vegetables you consume due to the price of purchasing organic foods, the smart choice should be obvious. When shopping for organic foods, it is important to remember to look for the USDA organic seal and check the label to see if what you are buying is actually organic. Happy shopping! References: Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences Cooperative Extension. (2003). Organic Labels. [Brochure]. Brown, JL: Author. Organic Labeling. Retrieved September 13, 2012 from USDA Agricultural Marketing Service: National Organic Program Web Site: Crystal Smith-Spangler, Margaret L. Brandeau, Grace E. Hunter, J. Clay Bavinger, Maren Pearson, Paul J. Eschbach, Vandana Sundaram, Hau Liu, Patricia Schirmer, Christopher Stave, Ingram Olkin, Dena M. Bravata; Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?A Systematic Review. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2012 Sep;

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Dietary Protein- Hype or Healthful?

There is a lot of talk and hype these days about dietary protein. Some people think you need to eat more or take protein supplements for a healthy diet. Others may be low in protein but never realize it. How do you know how much you may need, and what kinds are the best? What about whey protein? Is a higher protein diet good for weight loss? These are all common questions I have been asked, and you may have questions about. The RDA, or Recommended Dietary Allowance, in the United States for dietary protein ranges from 46-56 grams for adults, or .37 grams/pound of body weight. In the U.S, it is very rare to not consume enough dietary protein, but in many developing countries it is a major cause of malnutrition. Sometimes those who have trouble eating may be low in protein, such as the frail elderly, or those recovering from surgery or burns have higher needs. Otherwise, most of us consume more than we need, which we convert into either glycogen for energy, or is stored as fat. Conversely, some people who have kidney disease may be harmed if they consume too much protein. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines have a few new recommendations for protein intake. First is to eat a variety of protein foods, not only meats and poultry, but seafood (twice a week), eggs, beans and peas, nuts, seeds, and soy foods. In particular, it states to replace protein foods higher in solid fats, such as meat, full fat dairy, and poultry, with those that are lower in solid fats and/or are higher in oils, like soy, nuts and seeds or beans. When reading the Nutrition Facts labels, a good source of protein is 5-9.9 grams and high source is 10 or more grams per serving. If you are vegan, simply eating a variety of non-animal sources of protein is sufficient. So, save your money if you are purchasing protein supplements. They can be very expensive, and for healthy people are unnecessary. What about whey protein and weightlifting? Whey is the non-fat part of milk that is left when milk is curdled to make cheese. It also contains lactose, vitamins, minerals, and other substances. It is an excellent source of protein and often an ingredient in protein bars, beverages, and yogurt. It contains a high amount of the amino acid (a building block of protein) leucine, playing an important role in the body’s utilization of energy, and also helps stimulate the body’s synthesis of muscle. Do you need a special supplement of whey to recover and build muscle? No. Simply drink milk or eat yogurt. Lastly, it is a good idea to heave a source of protein in a meal or snack for weight control. Protein takes a little longer than carbohydrate to digest, and thus provides a feeling of fullness, or satiety. It helps the body control blood glucose (or blood sugar) levels, therefore controlling hunger. So it is all about calorie balance with how much you burn off whether you are gaining, controlling or losing weight. Have any other questions about protein? Consult with a registered dietitian, or check for more answers.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Myths and Facts about Eating Healthy on a Budget

According to a new survey by the International Food and Information Council, who recently completed a survey of Americans and their thoughts on diet, over 60% thought it is still simply too expensive to eat healthfully. What are your thoughts? Check yourself below to see if you are one of the many thinking this myth is true. Myth or Fact: Canned and frozen foods are not as healthy as fresh. Myth. But, it can be tricky to find healthy foods if you don’t read the Nutrition Facts label first. Look for less than 10% daily value of sodium, buy the low sodium version, or drain and rinse vegetables to reduce sodium by up to one-third. Purchase frozen produce with no added sauces or sugars. Other canned foods to choose are canned meats and fish, packed in water. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans now states to consume no more than 2000mg of sodium per day, or 1500mg if you are older than 50 or have high blood pressure. Myth or Fact: All fats are unhealthy. Myth. Fat is an essential nutrient for our bodies, but some kinds are definitely not as healthy as others, and so should be limited. Fast should make up about 30% of our diet, and the majority should be from healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats like canola, olive, safflower, and sunflower. Other healthy fasts are omega-3 such as from fish and flax seeds. Unhealthy fats to be limited are saturated and trans-fats from meats and dairy and more processed snacks and desserts, which help clog arteries and contribute to heart disease and strokes. Purchase lower store brand non-fat milk and dairy products and lean meats to extend your food budget. Myth or Fact: Protein can help keep you feeling full and thus ward off hunger. Fact. Consuming mixed meals and snacks from carbohydrates like grains, fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and protein from beans, seeds, nuts, fish, poultry, eggs or meats will slow digestion compared to consuming only carbohydrates. The myth is from thinking we need to consume high amounts of protein. Protein needs range from 10-20% of the total diet. Eating a meatless meal once or twice a week will help extend your food budget. Myth or Fact: Food additives are bad for your health. Myth. Food additives, such as preservatives and artificial colors, are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so are safe for consumption. In fact, without food preservatives, our food would spoil much quicker from mold or yeast, and increase our food waste. Myth or Fact: Fruits and vegetables are high in pesticides. Myth. Again, the FDA regulates the kinds and amounts of pesticides that can be used on produce, and those grown in the United States are below accepted safe levels. Farmers have continually been reducing the use of pesticides over the years, using integrated pest management practices. To extend your food budget, purchase produce in season at your local farmer’s market.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Does eating fish help your heart?

Guest author:  Michael Nornhold,  Bowling Green Sstate University Dietetic Intern with Penn State Extension

While it is almost impossible to predict the weather, we can expect some hot days, some wet ones and a large amount of humidity here in Pennsylvania. In the same way, while it is almost impossible to predict our health as we age, we can expect fish and seafood to help us along the way.

Some of the benefit s of fish come from the omega-3 oils Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) found in fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, and sardines. These fish also have a low risk of mercury contamination, which has become a concern recently. Since fish are also lower in saturated fat than other meats, trading fish for meat lowers your risk for heart disease. Chunk light tuna in water is also a good choice due to its mild flavor, low price and low mercury levels.  

Those who eat fish and seafood more often have lower risk for heart disease, stroke, and possibly dementia. Thirty percent of deaths in Pennsylvania are caused by heart disease, the leading cause of death in this state. The amount of fish needed to reduce your risk of a heart attack by a third is only one to two meals per week. A good way to start eating more fish is to make Tuna Tuesdays or Fish Fridays a part of each week.  

A great way to prepare fish is to steam in foil with lemon slices. Another is to bake in a small dish at 350°F with a little water and lemon. Add black pepper and seasonings such as basil, parsley, dill, paprika or just about any other seasoning that you would like to try. The fish is ready when it begins to flake easily with a fork and reaches an internal temperature of 145°F. This will be about 15-30 minutes depending on the amount and thickness of the fish. Choosing deep fried fish or fish sandwiches does not offer the same benefits as other types of fish. Fish and seafood also make a great topping for salads. Keep canned tuna and salmon on hand so if you don’t have time to go to the store you can still make a quick Tuna Tuesday or Fish Friday meal. Canned tuna is a quick and easy alternative to deli meats, which are often higher in salt.

When cooking for children it is important to create the best situation for your children to try new foods. It may help to light a scented candle when cooking fish at home to cover the smell that some children find unpleasant. It will be important to let your children see you enjoying the new food and remember that it may take 8-9 tries before a child accepts a new food. It will help to serve a familiar side with the fish and encourage your child to at least taste the new food, but don’t offer bribes.   

The oils DHA and EPA found in fish can be purchased as pills. But the evidence is not as strong for these pills to protect your heart. Also, side effects include the dreaded fish burps. For these reasons eating actual fish is better. If you choose to use pills, look for capsules that contain at least 500 mg EPA/DHA and have the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) seal. The USP seal lets you know the product is tested for strength and safety. As always, check with your physician before taking any pill to make sure it will not interfere with any of your medications.  

There are also other sources of omega-3 fatty acids related to DHA and EPA. These foods include flaxseed, flaxseed oil, walnuts, canola oil, soybeans and soybean oil. However, similar to pills, the evidence for heart-healthy benefits from eating these foods isn’t as strong as it is from eating fish. For this reason fish should still be eaten one to two times per week.  

Fish that have a higher risk of mercury include shark, tilefish, swordfish, and king mackerel. These fish should not be eaten often. When catching fish locally it is important to get the fish from stream to table safely. The first step is to find a safe creek. To find local recommendations for your favorite Pennsylvania fishing hole, go to and select the link at the bottom of the page called ‘consumption advisories.’ After catching and cleaning fish it is important to keep out fish of sunlight and cool to 35-40°F quickly to prevent bacterial growth. Fresh fish should be used within two days. If you choose to freeze your fish, it should be used within 6 months. It is recommended that you only eat one meal per week of locally caught fish. Some areas and species are restricted further.  Also check out for more fish safety and handling information.  

Friday, May 18, 2012

Go Higher with Fiber

With the gardens greening this time of year, or if you are like me and maybe still contemplating what to plant, I want to encourage you to think  fiber. Why am I concerned about fiber? Most of us are only consuming 40% of our fiber needs, averaging 12-15 grams, when the adequate intake we need is 14g per 1000 calories, which is 22g for school aged children, 25g for women, and 38g for men. 

Why should you care about fiber? While it provides no calories, since we can’t digest this carbohydrate, it helps in so many ways. (Keep in mind as you increase fiber, do so by 5 or so grams per day and drink extra water to prevent any initial constipation or bloating):

·         Weight control- Fill up on less calorie dense fiber rich foods while snacking and at the beginning of meals. This reduces your feelings of hunger and calorie intake overall.

·         Bowel disorders- eating a higher level of fiber will help with, and in many cases prevent constipation, diarrhea, and is key in the treatment of many disorders and diseases of the bowel, such as diverticulosis and irritable bowel syndrome.

·         Metabolic syndrome, Type II diabetes, and high cholesterol leading to cardiovascular disease- Low fiber has been linked in adolescents with the hallmark signs of metabolic syndrome: large waist size, higher blood sugar, high blood pressure and cholesterol. Adequate fiber in the diet blunts the rise in blood sugar, and binds up the lousy LDL cholesterol to take it out of circulation.

 So back to the garden, why not plant some higher fiber foods this summer? Or when shopping for produce at our wonderful farmers’ markets, choose hirer fiber foods for better health and nutrition. Here are some of the top fruits and vegetables to choose for fiber content per ½ cup:

Beans (navy, pinto, kidney, lima), peas and lentils-    6-9g

Pears- 5.5g

Soybeans- 5g

Raspberries, blackberries- 4g

Sweet potato- 4g

Apples- 3.6g

Greens(spinach, collard, turnip)- 2.5-3.5g

Asparagus- 3g

Broccoli, cooked- 2.8g

For a really nice guide to produce, including fiber content in the Nutrition Facts profile, Penn State Extension has the Pennsylvania Produce, a Guide to Quality Produce grown in PA free to order or download from our Publications office found at

Of course, don’t forget all whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains are a good source of fiber, including bran and whole grain cereals and breads. Take your children into the garden, grocery shopping, and taste test all the wonderful fiber-rich foods. Everyone’s taste buds and digestive system will thank you!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Eating Trends and Tips for Energy Balance

March is National Nutrition Month, so it is a great time to think about balancing food intake and physical activity, a key factor for energy balance, or weight management. We know it is an ongoing challenge, but we will look at some new research and ways to make it easier.

Let’s look at both sides of this calorie balance issue. Many people are unaware of how many calories they should consume each day. The total number of calories a person needs each day varies for each person. Age, gender, weight, height and level of physical activity must be considered. For women, it is estimated that they need between 1,600 to 2,400 calories a day, while men need 2,000 to 3,000 calories a day. For a good estimate, go to the new Super Tracker found You can also track your energy balance by adding your daily food and physical activity. There are also many free weight management apps for smart phones and tablets. Look for those that have a solid nutrition analysis (including iron, fiber, calcium, potassium since many are lacking) and let you monitor your progress over time.
A good tip for how much to eat at a meal is to choose no more than one third of your total daily calories. Many restaurants, prepared foods, and newer recipes are listing the nutrition information per serving. Consider how much you will eat compared to the serving size provided; sometimes you may be eating double the calories based on the smaller serving size listed. When choosing foods, look at the ingredients and serving size provided, and choose a smaller portion size, especially when the calories are high. When you are trying to monitor your caloric intake replace foods that are high in calories with foods that are more nutrient-dense (more nutrients per calories) and beverages that are low- no calories like water. Unfortunately, according to recent studies from the National Cancer Institute, most of the top five sources of calories for all ages are more calorie dense than nutrient dense: grain-based desserts (cakes, cookies, pies), pizza, sodas/energy/sports drinks, yeast breads, and chicken/chicken mixed dishes. In this case, we recommend always to “Enjoy you food, but eat less,” the new quarterly message from USDA’s MyPlate.

Research has shown that the percentage of carbohydrates, protein and fats in our diets to manage our calorie balance or lose weight is not as important as the overall amount of calories consumed and maintained over time. Carbohydrates include sugars, fibers and starches. Sugars and starches can be found naturally in foods and can also be added to foods. Although the largest percentage of our diets is carbohydrates, which our body needs for energy, many people consume too much added sugar and refined grains and not enough fiber. There is moderate evidence increasing nutrient dense and low energy dense whole grains, fruits and vegetables will help with achieving calorie balance and healthy weights. Reducing added sugar from drinks and prepared foods has strong evidence, especially in kids, to reduce weight gain and maintain calorie balance.

Adding protein to meals and snacks can help with reducing hunger by slowing meal digestion. Animal sources include seafood, meat, poultry, eggs, and milk products while some plant sources include beans, peas, nuts, seeds and soy products; consuming more plant-based and fish sources are encouraged, as they are lower in calories and promote heart health.

http://www.choosemyplate.govAnother way to increase nutrient density and lower caloric density is reduce fried foods, and higher fat cuts of meats and milk products. Choose fat-free or lower fat cheese, milk, salad dressings, or make your own with healthier olive or canola oil. Compare food labels and choose products with lower fat, saturated fat, and no trans-fat.

Having a balance between the food consumed and physical activity will help a person to control their weight and health. Studies continue to show many people do not get the recommended physical activity; at minimum 60 minutes daily for children and 75 (intense) -150 (moderate) minutes weekly for adults. Becoming physically active also has health benefits such as reducing the chances of premature death, many chronic diseases, and risk factors that cause disease.
Setting a goal to walk more with a friend, or family member to exercise with, will increase your chances of improving your energy balance and leads to more success. Likewise, consider signing up for a new exercise or nutrition/cooking class with your family or friends. Making one small step towards a healthy change with a fun, new activity will increase the chances everyone will benefit. For more information, go to and click on health and nutrition for classes in your county or 4-H programs, or contact your local office.