Energy shots – help or hype?

As the glory days of college drift further and further away, it seems mustering up the energy for a night out on the town is getting harder and harder.  At a recent bachelorette party I couldn’t believe how many people relied on those quick energy shots for a quick boost before a night out.  While I thought they were geared towards adolescent boys, turns out they are quite popular among young professionals who need an afternoon or late night kickstart.  Then, a few weeks later, I was at wedding where the bridal party was downing these shots before the ceremony. I decided it was time to check them out for myself. People claimed they were “all-natural” because they only have a bunch of vitamins but I took a closer look to see what the science says about these “natural” energy boosters.  Do they work and are they really safe?

First off, these shots are loaded with B vitamins. Niacin, B6, Folic Acid and B12 are given in large amounts (some up to 2000% the recommended daily amount). While the theory is that all of these are involved in the production of energy in the body (and therefore will boost your energy), they actually won’t produce any noticeable effect unless you are happen to be deficient in any of these vitamins.  Which is quite unlikely given they are found in common foods like meat, eggs and whole grains. There is no evidence suggesting that ingesting extra doses of these vitamins provides any added benefit.  In fact, they all happen to be water soluble vitamins, meaning that anything not needed by the body will simply be excreted in urine.  While ingesting these vitamins in large doses is generally safe, it is important to note that people can be sensitive to niacin and may experience a “niacin flush” characterized by a hot prickling feeling and skin redness.  That doesn’t sound too pleasant.

Beyond the vitamins, these energy shots also have an “energy blend” made up primarily of different amino acids and caffeine.  Caffeine is the only ingredient that has actually been proven to improve mental alertness.  It appears that most of the energy boost seems to come from the caffeine. Meaning that you will get the same benefits from a simple cup of coffee. Since these shots don’t require FDA approval or labeling of exact caffeine amount, there is no safe way to know how much you are ingesting. Or how the mixing of all these different ingredients may actually affect the body.  Since none of the claims are backed by any clinical research, it appears that you are paying more for the hype. And some pretty expensive urine.

Bottom line – stick with a cup of coffee.  Or try a nap.

Food Saftey 101

I know, food safety is probably not the sexiest nutrition topic. But as I recently discovered on a weekend getaway with friends, the general knowledge in this area is a bit lacking. And since some of my devoted readers have requested more info, I figured I would put a little refresher together!  As it turns out, it seems many of us need it. The CDC estimates that 1 in 6 Americans (48 million) Americans contract a foodborne illness each year. That means you or someone you know will likely suffer from so-called “food poisoning” at least once this year.  While we may not be able to control what others do in their kitchens, here are some simple ways to make sure your kitchen is up to code!

1.)    Wash your hands. While this may seem obvious, many people either do not correctly was their hands or don’t do it nearly enough. To properly kill bacteria, you must wash your hands for at least 20 seconds (about the amount of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice) with hot water and soap.  Try it once and you will realize just how long 20 seconds really is!!  Chances are you aren’t currently doing a complete job.  I know I wasn’t the first time I tried. Also, be sure to wash hands before cooking or eating, after using the bathroom, sneezing or blowing your nose, and after touching raw foods, especially meats.
2.)    Separate cutting boards. Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meats and raw fruits and vegetables. This can cut down on the risk of cross contamination.
3.)    Clean surfaces. Always clean a surface after it has been in contact with raw foods.  This includes raw fruits and vegetables as dirt and debris from these foods can be a source of contamination.
4.)    40 below is the way to go.  Make sure your refrigerator temperature is set to below 40 degrees F. And don’t pack the fridge too full.  An overcrowded fridge can easily heat to dangerous temperatures.  Keep freezer set to below 0 degrees F.
5.)    Never defrost food on a counter. Defrost in the refrigerator, microwave or under cold water.  Bacteria thrive at room temperature and food left out for a long period of time can become bacteria feeding zones.  If food is defrosted in the microwave or under cold water, it should be cooked right away.
6.)    Never marinate meats at room temperature.  Always place marinating foods in the fridge. Leaving them out on the counter is another great way to harbor bacterial growth. Be sure to place marinating raw meats and seafood on the bottom shelf of the fridge. In the event that they spill or leak, this can minimize the risk of potential cross contamination.
7.)    Set a 2 hour limit.  Refrigerate perishable or prepared foods and any leftovers within two hours.  If you are out in the hot sun, don’t leave food out for longer than an hour.  Yes, this means if you are at a picnic or poolside BBQ, you can’t leave food out longer than an hour! Portion it in smaller containers and leave in a nearby fridge or cooler until needed.
8.)    Don’t place large, hot containers in the fridge.  When making large batches of hot foods (think soups) transfer to long, shallow containers before placing in the fridge or freezer.  Otherwise, contents in the middle can much too longer to reach safe temperatures, therefore creating perfect opportunities for dangerous bacteria to grow. Since bacteria often don’t taste or smell, you won’t know until it’s too late.  It’s ok to let the food cool on the stove for a bit before transferring, just don’t wait longer than 2 hours. Remember rule number 7!
9.)    When it doubt, toss it out! Most leftovers/prepared foods can last about 4 days in the refrigerator but if it looks, smells or taste funky, toss it. It isn’t worth the risk.

5 “Health” Foods to Skip

Fat free. Light. Diet. All-natural. Healthy. Yes, the lure of these claims can be enticing.  But are they actually true? The simple answer is: if it seems too good to be nutritionally true, it probably is. As marketers get more and more creative with their health claims, consumers have to get more and more savvy at looking beyond them.  Luckily I’ve done some of the work for you! Here are five so-called health foods that I would skip (and you probably should too!). Here’s a look at why:
1.)    Light yogurts
 Perhaps the most touted health food on the market, the yogurt aisle these days seems to grow as quickly as American waistlines. While some yogurts are protein packed calcium delights, others are nothing more than a laundry list of ingredients paraded around in a deceiving marketing package.  Most of the “light” style yogurts, while low in calories, are far from the simple yogurt and fruit pairing they claim to be.  Packed with artificial colorings, artificial sweeteners, added sugars and preservatives, these so-called “health” foods are chalk full of unidentifiable ingredients.  Not to mention that some can pack in as much sugar as a can of Coke. The only two ingredients in your yogurt should be milk (preferably skim or low-fat) and active cultures. Opt for the Greek style yogurts as they tend to have 3 times the amount of protein as traditional yogurts.
2.)    Reduced fat peanut butter
 Yes, peanut butter tends to be high in fat. But don’t fear fat – embrace the healthy kind!  The whole reason to eat peanuts is to get a good dose of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. Fat is an essential part of our bodies helping to provide energy and maintain healthy hair and skin. Saying you want peanut butter minus the fat is like saying you want a steak without the protein. Just doesn’t work.  And it turns out you aren’t saving so much after all.  Reduced fat peanut butter has about 12 grams of fat/serving while a regular, all-natural version comes in at about 16 grams. So for a measly 4 grams of fat you are saving in heart healthy, monounsaturated fats, you are gaining in hydrogenated vegetable oils (a.k.a TRANS FATS!), sugar, corn syrup solids, soy protein and some unrecognizable preservatives.  Think I’ll stick to the peanuts!
3.)    Veggie chips
 While marketed as chips made from vegetables, a closer look at the label reveals that the first ingredient is potato flour (a far cry from the fresh and colorful veggies they claim to be) followed by potatoes, oil, salt, sugar and finally spinach and beet root powder.  No actual veggies other than potatoes, which looks quite similar to your average potato chip. The so-called vegetables in here are used for nothing more than some color. The only way to enjoy true vegetable chips is to make them yourself. Slice up some beets, sweet potatoes, turnips or kale, drizzle with olive oil and bake until crispy perfection!
4.)    Fat-free salad dressing
 Contrary to popular belief, fat does not make you fat. Eating too much of anything will. And the first and foremost culprit these days seems to be sugar. Which just happens to be the first ingredient (behind water) in most fat free salad dressings. These nicely marketed dressings tend to be low in calorie because they are diluted with water and filled with cheap ingredients like sugar and preservatives. A simple drizzle of olive oil and vinegar is the perfect topping to any salad. The fat is what will keep you full and satisfied until the next meal, and less likely to reach for that afternoon cookie, donut or other sugar laden pick-me-up.
5.)    Diet soda
 While diet drinks may be zero calorie, they also happen to be a big zero in the nutrition department. And what they lack in nutritive value, they more than make up for in controversial ingredients. Up first is aspartame – an artificial sweetener. While it is indeed calorie-free, some research shows that these artificial sweeteners may actually lead to weight gain. The theory is that because your body isn’t getting the calories from sugar it thinks it is, it is confused, unsatisfied, and looking for more. Or you simply eat more of something else because you think you are saving calories by opting for a diet drink. Either way, doesn’t bode well for the idea that calorie free is the way to go.
If that still isn’t enough of a reason to ditch the drinks – recent research revealed that all colas contain high levels of 4-methylimidazole, a known animal carcinogen. This has prompted the beverage companies to reevaluate their current formulas. Bottom line: while there may be no calories in these drinks, there are plenty of controversial ingredients to steer clear of and absolutely NO nutrients you’ll be missing out on by ditching them.

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